As you might know, I am a relatively new addition to the staff of this church. Not only that, but I am also a new addition to the ranks of clergy. I graduated from seminary less than a year ago, and this church has been gracious enough to take me on and let me learn how to put into practice the things that I have studied.
As many of you have probably experienced yourselves, that shift from studying to do something to actually doing can be a strange transition. You realize there are a lot of things you learned that matter a great deal in theoretical conversations but don’t make a whole lot of difference “in the field.” And you realize there are a lot of things you didn’t learn in school that matter a whole lot to how you do your job.
One of those things they didn’t teach me in seminary was how much this job intersects with the world of the law.
When I began this job, I was not yet licensed, so the initial call agreement I was given, which is the clergy version of a contract, had to be supplemented by a temporary “lay employee” contract. One of my first tasks after beginning work was orchestrating running background checks on all of our childcare and church school volunteers to keep us up-to-date on our safe church policies, and doing that required creating legal documents authorizing us to perform those screenings. Then in the course of organizing our mission trip and middle school Heifer Farm trip there have been contracts with our host organizations that have landed on my desk and multiple release forms I have had to distribute for the hosts of our youth-group rock climbing and ski trips. And to top all that off, our personnel committee has been in the process of updating our church personnel handbook and our building committee is in the process of negotiating contracts and insurance settlements, and so at staff meetings and Church Council meetings I have been trying to keep up with the nuances of those legal discussions so that I can at least have a basic idea of what’s going on.
Basically, the biggest surprise of my first six months serving as a pastor has been how much of a crash course I’ve had to take in law and legal jargon, with many thanks given to my unexpected slate of new “professors” here in this congregation.
Of course, the challenge of learning to navigate these discussions is that the law is complicated! While on the one hand law is meant to codify our basic moral intuitions, on the other hand, the more you attempt to put down in a legal code, the more nuanced and complicated it becomes, making it, ironically, less intuitive.
Well, our two scripture readings today are steeped in the legal world of ancient Israel. And the twists and turns of the legal logic are not always what we might call intuitive.
We aren’t going to delve into all the nuances of the Hebrew legal system this morning, don’t worry!
But it is worth noting the ways in which Jesus’ discussion of the law reflects, and challenges, our own intuitions.
And this is especially worth considering because Jesus’ sermon from which our second reading was drawn is about building a community, something we here at Saugatuck are participating in ourselves.
Jesus begins in our reading by reciting the basic legal intuitions of “proportional justice”: “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’” Jesus says first, quoting from the Hebrew law. And then, a bit later, “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’”
An eye for an eye: this is one of the most ancient phrases in legal history. Today it has the connotation of harsh, reactionary justice, but in the ancient world it was actually a brilliant move designed to prevent people from dealing too harshly with others. You could, this legal principle states, exact damages equivalent to what you had suffered, but if you went beyond that you yourself could be penalized for your heavy-handedness. It was a way, in the ancient world, of restraining people’s urge for revenge.
The second quote Jesus gives from the Hebrew law is a bit more interesting. First of all, its not strictly speaking a quote. The first part, “You shall love your neighbor,” is a quote from our reading in Leviticus. The second part, “and hate your enemies,” is found nowhere in the Hebrew Bible, it is something that Jesus adds on to make a point. And the way he’s added it on captures something of our natural inclinations, doesn’t it? We like to love those who love us and we are prone to hate those who hate us. Those are very natural human emotions, written into the very fabric of our social psychology.
And the thing about both love and hate is that they are usually disproportional.
When we love someone, we will walk miles for them, endure fire for them, and sing really goofy old songs for them.
I’m just about old enough now to be able to look back on my teenage years (and the teenage years of my siblings) and recognize just how much of a pain we were for my poor parents. But they endured it all because they loved us.
And the same can be said of hate.
When we hate someone, when we feel that visceral dislike, that hair raising on the back of the neck, that skin crawling at the mention of their name kind of feeling, proportional justice doesn’t really register in our consciousness. We instinctually billow up and unleash “the disproportional response,” a phrase I’ve stolen from my favorite television show of all time, The West Wing. Take a look:
Jesus moves from the code of “proportional justice” to the natural human inclinations of “disproportional” love for those who love us and hate for those who hate us, and Jesus challenges both with his own legal code: the code of disproportional, universal compassion.
Now of course, compassion isn’t foreign to the Hebrew law. Our first reading this morning is full of rules designed to ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable members of society were provided for. Its a text most people don’t realize is in the Bible, and it basically amounted, in the ancient agricultural world, to a welfare system.
Jesus reinforces that kind of compassion, the compassion to care for those in need, but he also goes even farther:
“Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give 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.”
These are pretty radical teachings. Its not just that we should have compassion on those in need. It’s that we should have compassion on everyone, even when they offend us, when they bully us, when they attack us, when they make demands of us that we don’t want to meet.
Probably building on my abiding love for The West Wing (and because they want my money), Netflix recommended to me their original series House of Cards. I haven’t seen any of the new season yet, so don’t give me any spoilers after the service. But it is an enthralling, if terrifying, show. And one of the reasons it is so enthralling, I think, is that the “hero,” or maybe “anti-hero,” played by Kevin Spacey acts out what I think many of us wish we could accomplish: the perfect execution of a chess-match-like plan designed to totally destroy his “enemies.” We all know what its like to play out in our heads exactly what we wish we could say to that person who was mean to us or deprived us of something we deserved or demanded from us what we didn’t think was fair. We imagine those confrontations, we play out the lines, and we prepare for the moment when we get to turn the tables and put them on the defensive.
But in contrast to that, Jesus says to us:
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 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. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Its not just that Jesus is opposed to violence, or that he believes in non-confrontation or stoic passivity.
Jesus is calling us to be part of a new kind of community. Jesus is calling us to be part of a community that is defined by disproportional, universal compassion.
And the reason is because we all need to receive disproportional compassion from time to time.
The reality is that animosity is almost never a one-way street. The Capulets and the Montagues were both guilty at times of instigating flare-ups in their family feud. There’s no point arguing who was worse. And likewise all of us at times contribute to the challenges we face in our lives and our relationships. That isn’t to say that we should be ridden with guilt or that we should mistakenly and fatalistically believe that everything is always our fault. But that is to say that no one can claim to be totally without blame. There’s a reason why Jesus’ line “he who is without sin cast the first stone” worked!
So, as Jesus puts it, the sun rises on both the evil and the good, which is to say, it rises on all of us. When we choose to love our enemies instead of hating them, we aren’t simply choosing non-violence or passivity. We are choosing instead to say that however we may have contributed to the animosity between us in the past, we aren’t going to stoke the flames any higher now. We are going to replace hatred with disproportional, universal compassion.
Here at Saugatuck, we are building a church. That part of our story is the first thing most people hear about us and the collective excitement we all feel at seeing those walls going up just about has this place bursting at the seams.
But that’s not the only thing we are building.
A couple of weeks ago at our Annual Meeting, we put on the wall a poster with the words “We are building…” and asked people to fill in that blank.
One of the first things that went up on the wall was “We are building a community.”
Community. We are building a community. Now how do you do that? What do we need to have a community?
Well, we might say, we need people, and we need relationships, and we need trust, and we need honesty, and we need leadership, and we need vision, and we need a willingness by everyone to pull their own weight.
All of which sounds nice, but the reality is, all of those things are also hard!
We aren’t going to just wake up in the morning and have a perfect community all sorted out. And even if we work hard at all of these things, the reality is we are still going to fall down sometimes.
I spent a lot of time while I was on vacation this past week watching the Olympics. One afternoon we were watching both the ski cross competition and some of the figure skating. Now both of those are events that are really challenging and require a lot of work. And both are events in which it is not uncommon for people fall and fall hard.
If you watched any of the figure skating last week, you know that on both the Russian and American teams, there were girls who were only 15 years old. And both of them, in the course of their routines for the singles competition, took a fall. You could see the disappointment most clearly on the face of the young Russian girl. She felt like she had failed.
But she’s only 15! She just skated in front of the whole world and finished in the top 10! How is that a failure? But in her mind, it is. It wasn’t the perfect performance, she didn’t go all the way to the Gold.
Thinking about our own young people in this community, how many feel the same kind of pressure? How many would struggle with the same kind of disappointment when the reality that they aren’t flawless set in?
But why does that reality need to be so harsh?
Why do we expect that kind of perfection of ourselves and of one another?
Of course we are going to fall every once in a while. And maybe more often than every once in a while. Maybe a lot. Because we are human, and to be human is to fall.
And that I think is what Jesus is saying in this passage. Its not that in this community we have to hold ourselves to some unrealistic standard of perfection. Its that we need to give one another permission to fall, permission to fail.
A few weeks ago at our leadership retreat, we watched a talk by social psychologist Brene Brown on vulnerability. Vulnerability, Brene says, is the root of creativity, of new ideas, of growth, of relationship, and ultimately of the kind of connection and trust that we need to build a community.
And why is that? Because vulnerability is what we experience when we take a risk, when we try something new, when we let someone into our lives, we extend the hand not knowing whether or not its going to be taken.
In another discussion that we didn’t watch at the retreat, Brene talks about how her research on vulnerability has changed her parenting. She talks about one of her kids wanting to try out for a sports team. Before this research, Brene says, she would have signed them up for camps and pushed them to get up to speed in order to make sure there was no chance they weren’t going to make that team. Now, she says, her attitude is different. She’s realized that sometimes failing is what we need. Sometimes we need to learn that its ok to not make it. So she lets her kid go out for the team and resolves herself to stand with them and cheer them on if they make it and to stand with them and cheer them on if they don’t.
Because at the end of the day, its ok to fall down, its ok to fail.
Jesus call to show disproportionate, universal compassion is about recognizing that fact. Recognizing that we are not flawless, that the things that divide us as a community are not the fault of any one individual or group, they are things we all contribute to. Recognizing this, our first step toward true community is having the humility to say, “I’m willing to forgive because I will someday need to be forgiven.”
It’s that cheesy old song: “lean on me, for it won’t be long till I’m gonna need somebody to lean on.”
That, I believe, is what being a part of the community of Christ is about. It’s not about being perfect, it’s not about being the best, its about giving one another permission to fail and promising to stand by one another when that happens. Because we all need somebody to lean on.
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