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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

A Third Way - 02/19/2017

Way back in another chapter of my life, I was a newspaper reporter working for a guy who was kind of a jerk.

What I didn't know at the time was that he was having some serious health issues that were effecting his ability to perform his job duties, but he didn't want to lose his job, so he kept it a secret … for way too long.

The result was that he lived his work life in fear of being found out and frustrated because he couldn't do his job well. This all led to a lot of anger and bitterness, and finally his tendency to unpredictably go off on those of us in the newsroom.

He treated the women in the newsroom the worst. At one point I even looked into filing a discrimination lawsuit against him, at the urging of my union colleagues who knew very well what a problem he was for those who worked under him. But the lawyer I talked to said something like “So you're saying you want to file a lawsuit against this guy because he is a jerk to everyone, but he's a worse jerk to women?” (Although the lawyer used a more colorful word than jerk.) So the lawsuit never went anywhere, and in retrospect I'm very glad for that.

But what I did do regularly was tell those around me who knew what I was going through that I was going to pray for that man. I will admit to you that I didn't do it out of pureness of my heart and with love for my enemy, like Jesus would have. I would often say something like “I'll pray for him, that would really yank his chain,” (although I used more colorful words than “yank his chain.”)

Even with my less than kind heart at the time, in a way, I think what I was responding a little like what Jesus is teaching us in our Gospel reading from Matthew today – a reading that has been sanitized and tidied over the centuries to make it more like something you'd find in a greeting card or on a clever refrigerator magnet than the powerful method of non-violent resistance that Jesus likely intended here.

An article by an American theologian named Walter Wink really opened this idea up for me. He talks about the “third way” Jesus is suggesting here. (Much of this sermon picks up themes from Wink's writing: Jesus' Third Way, https://www.google.com/search?q=Walter+Wink%2C+Matthew+5&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8)

The first way is answering violence with violence. We must remember here that the crowds Jesus is addressing are quite used to living under the often violent treatment of the Roman Empire and there were probably many people calling for violent resistance to the empire. But that is not a way Jesus is suggesting here and we can see that in his word choice.

“But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer,” Jesus says to the crowd. That word that we read as “resist” comes from a word with a specific meaning – it literally means to stand against something as though on the battlefield. What Jesus is saying here is that in the face of evil and violence brought about by evildoers, do not answer it in kind, do not bring it to a battle field.

The second way is the way I think we often apply to what Jesus is saying. It is a way of submission – turn the other cheek, give more than just your coat, go the second mile.

I think this is often how we simplify acts of non-violent resistance, which does work in some cases.

I remember hearing a story about an old woman who was walking home at night in the city. She had a cane to help steady her slow, but persistent walk to her front door. And you could tell just from looking at her that her strongest days were behind her. In fact you could probably knock her over with a feather.

As she was walking home, three young thugs spotted her and decided to rob her. They approached her and demanded her money and valuable possessions. The old lady reached into her purse and she pulled out a safety pin and walked right up to one of the young men and pinned a hole that had been torn in his jacket closed, saying that she didn't want him to catch a chill because of that hole. The three men were so touched and unnerved by this woman's compassion that they not only didn't rob her, but they walked her home and made sure she got safely through her front door.

I don't know if that's a true story or not, it might be just an urban legend. Regardless, I think it illustrates this second way well. It can be powerful and effective.

But this second way comes with problems too. Try telling an abused woman that the next time her husband hits her, she should just turn the other cheek and let him keep whaling away. Try telling the homeless veteran who gets ticketed for sleeping in the doorway of a store somewhere that when he goes to court he should pay the fine with his coat and everything else he has to keep him warm at night. Try telling the Cambodian mother and child who pick garbage dumps for salvage and recyclables that they should go the extra mile and scour those garbage piles for just a few hours more every day.

This second way doesn't always work and in many cases can even compound the abuse, the poverty, the hopelessness.

But if we dig in a little deeper and get at the context of these examples Jesus is using, we can see this third way Jesus is suggesting here more clearly – it is still non-violent resistance, but it is not submissive. It is actually rather subversive. It is what Ghandi was referring to when he said: "The first principle of nonviolent action is that of non-cooperation with everything humiliating."

“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also,” Jesus says. In a world where the left hand was considered unclean, the only way someone could strike your right cheek was with a backhand. It was an act used by masters of their households to humiliate and show dominance over their workers, wives, slaves, children. It was used by Roman soldiers in their encounters with the Jewish people. Many of the people Jesus was talking to were quite accustomed to being slapped like this.

Now among equals, it was permitted to haul off and clock someone right in the kisser with a closed fist, but still only with your right hand.

So think about what Jesus is saying here. If someone comes to you and tries to keep you down or humiliate you by backhanding you across the right side of your face and you turn your left cheek to them, you are not only saying hit me again if you so choose, but now you must strike me as an equal. And without lifting a hand in violent resistance, the power play in this act is subverted.

The same is true for the other two examples Jesus uses. In the courtroom at this time, it was the very poor who were sued when they could not pay the massive debt they incurred in an unfair system rigged to steal their ancestral lands. Their wealthy lenders would take them to court over the debt, and the law said that the lender had the right to take the debtor's outer coat, but they had to give it back each night so the person had some warmth and protection against the night air.

But Jesus is saying, not only your outercoat, but your underclothes too, which would have resulted in naked people walking out of the court. To our ears, this may seem like it would compound the humilation for the person in debt. But in Jesus' time, the humiliation of nakedness was not on the one who was naked, but those who saw the nakedness. So once again, without violence, Jesus is suggesting something that will change who is in control of the situation.

The third example of going the extra mile really seems to match up well with our American mindset of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps ... getting back on that horse ... if at first you don't succeed … you get the drift. As admirable as those attributes may be, it's not what Jesus meant.

In that time, the Roman soldiers were often marching through towns with 80-pound packs on their backs. They were permitted to grab citizens at will and make them carry the load for them. This is how Simon of Cyrene ended up carrying Jesus' cross for awhile. Soldiers would force people to carry their packs and often, whole towns would hide so they wouldn't coerced in this way. The military code, however, said that is was dishonorable for a soldier to do this for more than a mile. More than a mile and they would get punished in some way. So imagine the way this unexpected act would undermine the intended humiliation when the poor Jewish citizen not only gladly carried the soldier's pack, but insisted on carrying it for an extra mile. 

This is the third way Jesus is proposing in our text today. And, although we live in a different culture where our left hands are not considered unclean or evil, where stripping to our birthday suit in a courtroom would probably get us a free psychological evaluation and where going the second mile means something entirely different in our ears, we have continually found new ways to live into this third way Jesus proposes here. And they remain just as powerful in response to violence and oppression,...  just as powerful in their ways of using non-violent action to shift control of the situation and undermine tactics of humiliation and abuse.

Consider some more contemporary examples and the way they changed the landscape, they way they exposed abuses of power and privilege, the way they stand up for what is right and best and most life-giving for those we love as well as those we would call our enemy.

Like Rosa Parks refusing to accept the segregation of God's people.

This iconic picture of an act of peace and love in the chaos and division that often comes with our decisions to engage in war.

This student's response to violence in Tiananmen Square in China.

These Muslims in Egypt who chose to protect their Christian siblings so they could worship peacefully for Christmas after religious cult member seeking to divide Christians and Muslims attacked worshipers.

These Christians who responded similarly during the Arab Spring in Egypt when their Muslim brothers and sisters needed a safe place for prayer.

And just recently, this third way was employed by some like this young African-American woman in response to oppression and systemic racism.

And finally, consider our this table for the Lord's Supper … where we act out this third way every week. Make no mistake about it – our actions at this table are most definitely a non-violent response to evil, oppression and abuse in this world. It is at this table where, despite all the ranking and hierarchy of the world, we are all made equal in God's sight. It is at this table where we are reminded of that radical truth that we are set free from the sin that so much of the world would much rather hold against us. And it is at this table that we eat the bread and drink the wine that we truly frees us to boldly love even our enemies the way Jesus does.

Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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