Disruptive Love – Caroline Dean (2/19/17)

“Disruptive Love: The Best of Enemies”

Rev. Caroline Lawson Dean

Christ Church, Summit

February 19th, 2017

A reading from Matthew Chapter 5:38-48

“You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, do not oppose an evildoer.  If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give them your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.  Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

‘You have heard it 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, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for God makes the sun to rise on the evil and on the good.  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Everybody does that!  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?  Be perfect, be whole, like your God in heaven.


Let us pray:  God of Love, may our hearts be still, may we know your love, this day may we find your peace & grace we pray – Amen.


The Message Translation says “Love your enemies, let them bring out the best in you, not the worst.”    But what does it mean to love your enemy?  Does it mean to “Go the extra mile,” to overextend yourself & be really polite.  That’s what it meant for me in the south growing up – "don’t just set the table, assist the host until the last dish is put away at the end of the night" – that is “going the extra mile.”  But is that really what Jesus means when he says “love your enemy” to show up at their house and do the dishes?  

Do we love our enemies by "turning the other cheek?"  Seriously, how does it bring out the best in a person to invite an enemy’s continued physical abuse?  This seems like a particularly senseless strategy for women & children who are facing domestic violence.  And it feels downright callous, if not offensive, to preach this as “good news” to communities who are struggling in cycles of oppression, poverty, unequal access to education, food & water, and life threatening treatment in our criminal justice system.  You have heard it said, “be humble, roll over and take it, and while you are at it be really nice about it.”  And somehow becoming a doormat, that will make you more like God. (PROP: Doormat on Top Step)   This is of course a gross misreading of scripture.  And it is a dangerously disempowering and even abusive way to orient one’s life, both for the safety of loved ones and for our own health and wholeness.

That being said there are time when we need a break from it all.  And so I believe that God has grace when we duck under a conflict every now and again or need to turn inward instead of standing up for what is right all of the time.

But let’s try another reading.  Maybe Jesus is only talking about “turning the other cheek” in personal relationships.  Maybe this just applies to communities who are committed to practicing a Christian or religious way?   Maybe out in the “real world” or the secular world “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is an understandable practice. We have to go to war every now and again, and we need justice systems to punish people, right? “Fervent critics of nonviolence, argue that violence is a necessary accompaniment to revolutionary change or that the right to self-defense is fundamental."  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nonviolence#Criticism)  And so maybe if being a “doormat” is a bad option when trying to love our enemies, taking up the sword or the stick at least in certain scenarios, is actually the most effective method to reach a more just & peaceful world?  (PROP: Stick on the Top Step)

And again I know that there are communities around our country and around our world who have been bathed in cycles of war or violence.  And who am I to say that self-defense or even a violent response to try to achieve peace is wrong all of the time?

But the problem with this reading is that it lets us off the hook a bit too easily.  Who is to say when being violent is righteous and when it is reactive, and indeed creates more harm, even to the one who has resorted to violence?   Does an eye for an eye really work?  Or in the end as the parable goes "do we all end up blind?"  Secondly, Jesus is most certainly NOT addressing only our personal relationships or religious communities.  In Jesus’ time the Greco-Roman powers that be, oppressed and persecuted the Jewish people.  These teachings were not only about in-fighting they were about the empirical power, indeed they were political!

I was listening recently to a This American Life podcast recently entitled “Kid Logic.”

On this podcast, a dad explains that there was this one Christmas when his 4 year old daughter got really into the story of Jesus.  He read her Jesus stories in her "Kid Bible" every night.  She learned that Jesus' main teaching was "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."  And one day when they drove by a big crucifix and her dad explained that Jesus' teaching was so offensive to the Roman authorities that they decided that Jesus needed to be killed.

"A month later the Dad & daughter came across a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in the paper.  "And she said, who's that? And the dad said, that's Martin Luther King, this is the day we celebrate his life. And she said, so who was he? The dad said, well, he was a preacher. And she looks up at him and says, "for Jesus?" And the dad said yeah. Actually he was, but there was another thing that he was really famous for, which is that he had a message.

The dad went on and said "Dr. King said that you should treat everybody the same no matter what they look like."  The daughter thought about that for a minute, and she said, "well, that's what Jesus said."

And the dad said, yeah, I guess it is. You know, I never thought of it that way, but yeah. And that is sort of like do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And she thought for a minute and looked at the dad and said, "did they kill him, too?"

Jesus and Dr. King’s teachings have a lot to teach us about nonviolence in our personal and communal lives – but here is a truth they did not get killed because of their radical views on interpersonal relationships, they got killed because they spoke truth to power, because the powers were threatened by how their teachings empowered the vulnerable & the marginalized.  And so the point is that Jesus was not simply talking about being nonviolent SOMETIMES (even though surely he knew that we would struggle & need a break).  And Jesus was most certainly teaching this as a mode of being for every forum.  At least that is how he got killed – and so if this "Third Way" is worth Jesus’ life & Dr. King’s life then perhaps we should pay attention.  

So what does it mean to love your enemy?  Our passage today comes from Jesus’ longest sustained teaching in the Gospel of Matthew: “The Sermon on the Mount.”  Just as Moses delivered the law from Mount Sinai, Jesus interprets the law in his own time, in a fresh & challenging way.  He used examples that would immediately speak to his current context – “turning the other cheek” “going the extra mile” these are analogies that Jesus’ original disciples would immediately understand – but over time they lose meaning.

So let’s take a glimpse into the 1st century.  And let’s begin with turning the other cheek.  Imagine that a Roman soldier was offended by you & he slapped you on the cheek.  He would have to use his right hand because in Jesus’ time a person’s left hand was unclean.  And the way that a soldier would hit a person would be with the back of his hand to show domination & power.  If he were to slap with an open hand or a fist – that signified that he was confronting you as an equal.  And so by turning your other cheek you are forcing the soldier to hit you with an open hand declaring your worth, your equality.

Now imagine that same Roman Soldier, perhaps a bit angry at your display of resistance, proclaims that you must carry his pack for the next mile on his journey You see that was a law under Roman rule.  Entire towns or villages could be beckoned to haul an army’s supplies down the road for the next mile.  However, it was strictly illegal for a Roman soldier to allow a citizen to carry his baggage for more than a mile – if caught subjecting citizens to such practices the soldier would have been punished.  So imagine that at the end of your mile of service, you got a brilliant idea to keep going – you just keep on marching down the path “the extra mile.”  Imagine the soldier chasing you down the road, pleading with you to stop!  What a reversal, what a creative and empowering move and now the soldier is now in trouble, he is implicated in the oppressive system.

Lastly, imagine a creditor who is suing a poor person for her coat.  During Jesus' day the burdens of debt were blatantly unfair, the Romans taxed the people heavily to pay for their wars.  The only way that a person would be sued for her coat is if she were extremely poor.  But she came up a way to resist the creditor at the court that day.  She decided to not only give up her coat, but her cloak as well, which Jesus' audience knew would render her naked!  And her nakedness was a display of rebellion, and also a way of naming, shining the light of the reality of her oppressed state, her naked vulnerability.  And to top it off, the creditor would have been shamed by her nakedness because the shame “fell less on the naked party than on the person viewing or causing the nakedness (Genesis 9:20-27).”  (Walter Wink’s article “Jesus’ Third Way”).  So these acts are so much more than extending one’s self in extreme kindness, they are risky, radical and subversive.

And so what if there is a “Third Way” between responding to our enemies as a doormat or with a stick?  What if there is a way to shine a light on your own humanity while also revealing the truth that oppressors are implicated in this unjust system?  (PROP: Lantern on the Top Step

You see when Jesus asks us to “Turn the Other Cheek” he is asking us to proclaim our worth, our equality as a child of God.  To hold up the light.  In the novel & musical "The Color Purple," by Alice Walker in a climactic scene when an abused wife finally comes to the end of her rope, Celie proclaims to her husband, before leaving him for good, “I may be poor, I may be black, I may be ugly, But I am here!”  This is what it means to turn the other cheek.  She is no longer passive, and she will not resort to the stick that has been used to degrade her, she chooses a third way, her own empowered resistance.  

Celie teaches us that  this “Third Way” is the best way to redeem our own pain, and anger and bitterness.  Because we are choosing our own path, we are not mirroring back the pain that was given to us.  We are choosing a loving and yet radical resistance.  We will not be your doormat and we will not resort to your way.

And perhaps, even more miraculously in "The Color Purple" we learn that this “Third Way” can enable even the pain and bitterness of our enemy to be healed.  At the end of the novel Celie's former husband repents and asks for forgiveness.  Imagine the soldier, he has seen doormats and he has seen sticks, but maybe his heart is finally opened when he sees that man carrying his pack the extra mile.  Maybe he can finally see his sister turning her cheek declaring, with courage, that she is his equal.  Maybe this Third Way is the only way to truly love our enemy – because in this empowered resistance, there is space for the oppressor to soften, to become less of an enemy and perhaps even one day to help in the resistance.

And the truth is that it doesn’t work, most of the time.  There are evil powers that Jesus & Dr. King faced that we still face.  But the beauty of the Third Way is that when we can use it, we are refusing to become what we hate.  We are refusing to let anger and pain define us.  And sometimes, yes sometimes, it does have a healing affect beyond our own…

Here is an Excerpt from an article from Durham, North Carolina’s “News & Observer” June 20th 2016 (by Virginia Bridges)

"Civil rights activist Ann Atwater, a sharecropper’s daughter who helped shape Durham’s history, died Monday June 18th 2016 at Duke Hospital. She was 80.

Atwater helped organize poor African-Americans & give them a voice. She set up neighborhood councils, organized marches and stood up to politicians and Klansmen, who one night stood silently outside her apartment wearing white hoods.

Atwater is best known for becoming friends with Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis in the 1970s after they were appointed to lead community meetings on desegregating Durham schools.

Atwater shared how she had almost killed Ellis a couple of years before those meetings, pulling a knife from her handbag at an event downtown where he kept yelling (racial epithets).

“As soon as he got close to me, I was going to grab him and cut him from ear to ear,” she wrote.  But her pastor, she said, grabbed her hand and said “Don’t give him them the satisfaction.”

During 10 days of “Save Our Schools” meetings, Atwater wrote, “The blinders came off and we both saw that our fighting one another wasn’t doing anything to help the children.

“We didn’t become friends because we wanted to. What happened, really, was we saw how much we had in common. Then we couldn’t imagine not being friends.”

On the last day of the meetings, Ellis ripped up his Klan membership card in front of a crowd.

“Ann was not only a great community organizer, she adopted people into her family and cared for them as she would care for her own children.”

Her home, was essentially a community center for people who lost their housing and needed work, furniture and food “Her phone was always ringing.”

Atwater would assure people that asking for help said nothing about their worth. And she’d give away anything if someone was in need. Atwater would get an honorarium from a university for giving a talk and give it away."

Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/community/durham-news/article84815927.html#storylink=cpy

Jesus said, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

I met Ann when I was a first year at Duke’s Divinity School.  In fact, I’m sure that one gentleman named Brantley Dean tagged along with me one Saturday to help Ann clean out her garage.  Ann told us her story and I remember having the feeling that I have when I sit at the feet of Mirna in Nicaragua – Mirna runs a program that mentors street kids & orphans in Nicaragua’s poorest urban communities.  Ann & Mirna – they have this gravity – this gritty self-less-ness.  If you have five minute in their presence it is a five minutes that you do not forget.  My memories of Ann are not extensive – we did some projects at her house, we brought her a meal after a surgery, visited with her when she would speak at Duke.  But the thing that will always stick with me is how poor she was & how rich she was.  She was poor in material wealth, because as her obituary so beautifully represents. She had so many children & adopted family members in need that she just gave everything away.  She was so rich because she had this spiritual wisdom and wealth of a life marked by courage, faith and authentic struggle.  She had a wealth of community & what an amazing impact she had on her beloved city.  She was so rich & she was so poor -- as I imagine Jesus was…

And I think that’s what Jesus means when he says be whole, like God.  To Love with God’s love.  Because Ann helps me to imagine how good and lovely God’s love is in my life – how God would give everything away for me.  Ann’s life helps me to imagine how I might love with that kind of love.  And Ann’s life quite honestly makes me pause and say – what is stopping me from lending to those in need?  What is stopping me from resisting with disruptive compassion and empowered grit?  What is stopping me from loving my enemy?  Ann’s life is like a lantern – it shines a light on some of the ways that I am numb to the pain in this world and numb to my neighbor in pain…

And so beloved,  what does the Third Way look like in your relationships – or do we take turns being a doormat and as stick?  How can you hold up a lantern and say “Here I am” and “Here you are” and we are equal.  What does the Third Way look like in our church?  How can we practice & teach each other how to resist with gritty love and creative disruptive nonviolence What does this look like in our wider world, in our nation?

Of course we will falter and need a break, and of course there will be times when our only option is to duck, hide or react, but Dear God send us lanterns to help us when we cannot see our own worth or the worth of our neighbor.  Dear God send us light bearers to show us when we are complicit in systems that cause suffering.  Forgive us oh God, and give us the strength to put ourselves at risk to honor the vulnerable.  Dear God give us courage to “Love our enemies, as we let them bring out the best in us, not the worst”  Amen.

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Sermons & Presentations

Once, when Jesus was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing as a testimony to them.” But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, An Altar in the World, tells a story about a time when she was guest preaching at an Episcopal church in the south. She arrives early to check out the sanctuary & get settled in. She immediately noticed that behind the altar there was a striking mural of the resurrected Jesus, stepping out of the tomb. After greeting a member of the altar guild, a manicured and proper southern lady, Barbara walks up behind the altar to get a closer look at the mural. She says that Jesus looked “as limber as a ballet dancer with his arms raised in blessing…except for the white cloth swaddling his waist, Jesus was naked. His skin was the color of a pink rose. His limbs were flooded with light.”
Barbara felt protective over Jesus with so much skin showing, he is all exposed in such a public place. She recognized the beauty in this painting that in Jesus' moment of transcendence, he remained human, he came back wearing skin. But then she also quickly noticed that something was missing, the wounds in his hands and feet were apparent – though not grotesque. His arms were thin but strong, but then staring at his underarms, she noticed - that Jesus had no body hair! “Beautiful, isn't it?” asked the woman who was polishing the silver. “It surely is that,” Barbara said, “ but did you ever notice that he has no body hair? He has the underarms of a six-year-old and his chest is a smooth as a peach.” And the woman shrank in awkwardness. “Uh, no, um, wow…” she said.

This may or may not have sent me on a Google hunt to find a picture of a hairy Jesus, but alas, in the collective Christian imagination, Jesus is really into hygiene. Seriously though in a majority of these portraits, Jesus skin is silky and “rosey” and white and “hair free.”

And this perfectly manicured Jesus is problematic especially when I imagine Jesus in our gospel reading today. First of all - let's get something straight up front, Jesus was not fair-skinned, which is another sermon for another day. Second of all Jesus most certainly did not have access to spa treatments, sunscreen, or a personal trainer. I mean seriously though it looks like he baths in milk and does mint julep masks every day! And yes, Jesus was crucified, but he looked damn good doing it! The reality is that Jesus was a poor drifter teacher who trudged around in dirt and grim and touched lepers. And who knows, Jesus may have even been uglier or fatter or shorter or grey-haired or balding than our perfect-bodied Jesus! Why would that be such a scandal?

It would be a scandal - because we are generally uncomfortable with our own bodies – we decided to manicure Jesus' body and make it perfect to make us feel a little more at ease about the imperfections and struggles in our own bodies.

So Jesus' messy body – with smelly feet and bad breath and hunger and pain and a couple grey hairs – one day in his travels encounters a man who's body is covered in leprosy. And the man's frail and weak body covered with open wounds throws himself on the dirt ground at Jesus' feet in desperation. And Jesus heals him and restores him to his community. And I need Jesus to have a messy, real body in this scene. Because imagining the rosy pink flesh that is unblemished and perfect touching the broken body of the leper with open wounds just doesn't do it for me. “Rosey-skinned”

And perfect bodied Jesus doesn't fit in this story for two reasons:

1) Jesus' body certainly stands in contrast to our leper friend. The leper's flesh is rotting and open to infection, while Jesus' skin is shiny and new. If Jesus' body in our cultural imagination is perfect, unblemished, without warts or bad breath or hangnails, then we can hold his body at a bit of a distance. And the reverse is also true, Jesus can hold our bodies at a bit of a distance – and he would hold the body of a man with leprosy at a distance.

2) Leprosy is contagious, physically and socially – by touching this man, Jesus risks, pain, brokenness, loss of feeling, loss of limb, being socially ostracized. So when Jesus' body touches this leper – he risks being contaminated with this curse – this social and physical death. He puts his body on the line. And to top it off Jesus risks his own religious authority – if he contracts leprosy, everyone will think that it is his fault- that he deserves this suffering because he has sinned.

And so rosey-skinned-unblemished-no-body-hair-Jesus just doesn't do it for me in this scene. He is too ethereal, too perfect to risk touching a leper. The rosey-skinned Jesus has a special body and he can stand apart from us – he doesn't really get what it's like to be human. The Jesus with body hair, he is on our team, he is vulnerable, he touches lepers. He has skin in the game. He is moved with pity to touch a man who is untouchable.

But here is where the rubber hits the road, (START SLIDESHOW) just like the portrait of Jesus' perfect body we idealize the perfect human body now more than ever, and our relationships with our bodies are so complicated and loaded that we often cope by ignoring our bodies until they scream at us for attention.

Think about the struggles that land in our bodies: Struggles in our sex lives, with body image, with our relationship to food, our ability to balance rest and work, our relationship with other people's bodies, bodies that don't fit quite so easily into nice categories. We have an insidious cultural habit of demeaning and objectifying bodies in order to sell perfume. And don't get me wrong the Christian church has been the worst, trying to control our sexuality, and creating negative images of our bodies to suppress and oppress certain people with shame.

All of these complications and struggles divorce us from our bodies. Like the leper our bodies are fraught with illness – we are the most addicted, overweight, prescribed adult cohort in human history. These sacred vessels created in God's image are at risk of being subsumed by the quest for the “perfect body.” This dichotomy between our own body and the perfect body - divorce us from our bodies – suppress the beauty that we already are for some ideal or we ignore our bodies because they are loaded with shame

So here's the deal – This leper story is a story about isolation. This man is divorced from his own body, and kicked out of his religious, social and familial support system to battle this disease alone. And to top it off he is isolated from God, in their cultural context, this disease is proof that he has sinned before God and is therefore paying penance for his sins in suffering. So this man is left utterly isolated.

Jesus' miracle here is that he restores this man to his own body. When you have leprosy you lose sensation – you lose your connection to your nerves, which can eventually cause loss of limb. And so when Jesus heals him – he now is restored to his own body. This man is also restored unto his community, and they can now begin tending to the wounds of his soul from the pain of social isolation.

Like the leper we need Jesus to restore us to our own bodies and to restore us to authentic communities that can help us heal.

Why are people cast out in our society because of their bodies? Maybe they are too fat, too thin, too old or too young. Maybe they happen to love the “wrong body.” People are isolated because they are differently-abled, or their bodies carry the weight of illness or chronic struggles. We carry shame around in our bodies, not just eating disorders and a distorted idea of what “healthy” bodies look like but the general feeling that we are unaware of our bodies and our connection to God through them.

When we affirm Jesus' imperfect skin, we also need to affirm our own sacred skin. How does our culture try to divorce us from our own bodies? How do we lose touch with the sacred goodness of each unique body that is created in God's image, with one uniform and oppressive definition of “healthy” and “beautiful?”

Here me now when I say, “you are a person of beauty and worth, created in God's image.” How does that mantra change us? How can we develop rituals to remind ourselves of the sacred connection of our bodies and souls and minds? What does cherishing and affirming your body look like for you? Is it a yoga practice or a sport? A good bath, a long walk? Is it a nap or a morning routine?

Jesus says, “This is my body – broken for you”

Jesus body was broken

Our bodies are broken

And yet we celebrate them today as a place of sacredness – that God calls “GOOD.”

A beautiful miraculous gift – these things that we walk around in

These bodies that heal and breathe and walk and sing and dance

These bodies are our spiritual homes

May we gather in communion today with this mantra

“I am a person of beauty and worth – created in God's image”

And may that mantra heal us and draw us into communion with God and each other.