Benediction Online

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Non-violence and the Reign of God

Luke 6:27–36

Those of us who have been in retreat here this weekend have been pondering the parable of the unjust judge and the persistent widow.  Luke tells us that Jesus told the parable of the widow who kept bugging the judge until she got justice as a demonstration of the importance of being persistent in prayer. But it is also a reminder of the importance of being persistent in seeking justice. Our readings this morning are in commemoration of Martin Luther King, a man of God who was persistent in seeking justice. I want to highlight two aspects of his approach to justice-seeking this morning. First, he recognized that oppressions intersect by which I mean that you cannot see any one area of human oppression in isolation. Human trafficking is not a completely separate problem from hunger. Sweat shops are not a completely different problem from soil depletion. Secondly he realized that we cannot fight violence with violence.
In the last couple of years I have come to see non-violence as a vital part of our Christian faith.

We have become used to thinking that Jesus died on the cross to appease God, that somehow God’s sense of justice demanded death, a death that Jesus died for us. Yet when we take the long view of Christian history we can see that this is a relatively new idea. It wasn’t articulated until the eleventh century, so for half of the life of the Church that was not the prevalent understanding of Jesus’ liberating work for us. I have long been uneasy with the idea of a loving God who demands the death of his Son, or of anyone else’s son. Scholars have suggested several other ways that w can read the cross. It makes most sense to me to say that Jesus’ death was the logical outcome of his living a life of non-violence and holiness in a world that was entrenched with sin and darkness.

Jesus, Like Dr King, was not afraid to speak out against the injustices of his world. He was not afraid to point to the hypocrisies of the Jewish religious and legal system. He opened up the vision of the reign of God where there is not injustice and no oppression, and had the audacity to declare that this wasn’t some pie in the sky when you die, but here and now, inside each person. Jesus was giving ordinary people the tools and the motivation to resist Roman rule. It’s not surprising that the authorities were after him.

He was tempted to respond to violence with violence. On the evening that he was betrayed and arrested, Jesus asked his disciples how many swords they had. He knew what was coming and he was tempted to fight back. But in the event he didn’t give in to that temptation. When Peter cut of the servant’s ear, Jesus healed it right away. Violence was not the answer.

Violence always escalates. If Jesus had responded with violence he would have lost the battle against the sin matrix which is by its very nature violent. Jesus was the Lamb of God – the one who was innocent, the one who did not use violence in any way and so he was killed. Violence had done its worst.

But he rose again! Sin and violence were conquered. The system of sin and violence was exposed as powerless. And that is what we are here t o celebrate this morning. The Eucharist is not just a wonderful gift that enables us to connect with God and with one another. It is not just our becoming part of the Body of Christ, becoming one with each other and with Jesus – it is also a celebration that sin and violence have been conquered. We no longer need to fear because the worst that can happen to us is that we are tortured and we die. Jesus has already been there, done that, and risen again. And we know that we who are enrolled in the reign of God, we too will be raised with him. And so we are gathered this morning to give thanks to celebrate the great victory of our God and to look forward to the day when all oppression will cease, when the reign of God is actualized, and sin and misery will be no more.

So, if we see the saving work of Jesus being based in his non-violence resistance to sin, violence and injustice, in his refusal to play the game of returning violence with violence, then as his followers, we too are called to live lives of non-violence. But not lives of non-violent submission but non-violent resistance. We are called to resist violence in all its forms. That is the context for today’s gospel reading. Bible scholar Walter Wink has given us a new understanding of “turning the other cheek.” It is not an injunction to be loving and gentle. It is actually instruction for non-violence resistance. In the culture of the time, striking someone with the back of the hand was a way to assert dominance and authority. If they turned the other cheek then it invited an open handed blow, but this would be seen as a statement of equality. So by turning the other cheek the oppressed person was demanding equality. Similarly, giving your shirt would leave you naked, and nakedness was seen as bringing shame on the viewer as well as the one without clothing.

So our calling as Jesus’ disciples is not only to work for justice but also to resist violence in all its forms. To be merciful is to be non-violent. When we see people suffering around us, to show mercy is to respond with love. It is easy to go through our day with only peripheral vision for those who are around us. Loving mercy looks carefully at them and sees them as individuals whether they are our equals, our bosses or our subordinates. Loving mercy knows the name of the janitor and waves to the trash collector.
But it Is not OK for us to only give charity when it is justice that is needed. Soup kitchens and homeless shelters are important work, but they are providing charity when what is really needed is a change in the system that creates homelessness and allows hunger to continue. Justice means working to change the system. It is much more difficult than giving charity.

Following Jesus means doing everything we can to unhook ourselves from the system of oppression and violence in which we live. In an interconnected and interdependent world that is almost impossible. The food we eat is produced in ways which include violence to animals, often oppress farm workers, pour methane gas into the atmosphere and deplete the soil. The only way to avoid any oppression in the food you eat is to grow it all yourself. But short of that there are steps you can take – you can buy organic, you can reduce your consumption of animal products and only eat sustainable fish. The clothes we wear are manufactured as inexpensively as possible because we don’t want to spend a lot of money on clothes – and so they come from places like Bangladesh where factory workers work long hours for little money in unsafe conditions. This is not a challenge I have yet taken on for myself, but it is possible to find clothing that has not been made in sweat shops.

These are some ways that you can non-violently resist the system of violence, oppression and coercion that we live in. It is important that we take positions of resistance in our lives, but it is just as important that we take positions of resistance in our minds. Refusing to get involved in scapegoating is an important part of this. Our political system is built on defining who is in and who is out. In the reign of God everyone is in. Building communities where everyone is in and where we are able not just to accept, not just to tolerate but to welcome, to like and to celebrate those who are different from us is the work of non-violence.

The work of Integrity in the Episcopal Church in the last forty years has been to make the church fully inclusive of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons. To put an end to us and them. That work is far from over. Most gay and transgender people still do not think that they are welcome in church. There is much to be done before LGBT people feel as comfortable and as confident among the children of God as their straight brethren. But even when the church is fully inclusive, if we stop there then we will have failed, because there are still hate crimes. It is still ok for nations to decide that being gay is reason to be imprisoned or even executed. If we stop there we will have failed, because the Church is not here for our benefit; the church is here to serve the world. As long as there are young people being thrown out of their homes because they are gay, as long as there are people unable to get work because there are not enough jobs, as long as there are people homeless because they are mentally ill, as long as we continue to pour greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, our work is not done.

No-one can do it all. But I encourage you to follow the example of Martin Luther King - find that place where the cry of the world connects most deeply with your soul and work there for justice and an end to violence. I encourage you to find ways in your life to unhook yourself from the system of violence and end the cycle of judgmental violence in your own mind. Whenever you find yourself judging and criticizing others remember that they too are the beloved of God and turn your judgment into a prayer that they may know God’s peace.  And be persistent. Don’t give up.

Because in Jesus the cycle of violence is already broken and the reign of God has begun. Alleluia!


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