Monday, February 24, 2014

The Backhanded Sermon

Yesterday at First Austin, Rev. Dr. Roger Paynter preached on Leviticus 19 and Matthew 5... the turn the other cheek story. He said that while being told to turn the other cheek is often used by Christians to "baptize our masochism," it can also be a chance for us to allow for a "courageous assertion of ourselves."

I preached on this very text eleven years ago. It's a sermon on one of the best things I learned in seminary (I think). And since apparently University Baptist Waco has been on my mind lately (I threw on an old UBC shirt to run errands in on Saturday and then low and behold, Kyle Lake, visited me in a dream that night right before I headed to church to hear a text I once preached. So I got out the old scrapbooks, and I got out my old book of sermons (those files don't exist electronically anymore). And on my little iPad last night, I smiled and cringed and smiled some more and typed out that sermon to share with y'all. 

And of course I've included pictures. Because this text is tricky, and it required a full on demonstration from the stage that morning. Pre-blog apologies to Big Phil and Lance. And Kyle, it was nice to see you the other night. Thanks for visiting...

And now, we welcome to the blog 25-year-old Ann Pittman 
from UBC Waco 2003...

My name is Ann Pittman, and I'm in my third year of seminary which means that I was one of those dorky Christians in the high school youth group who took notes on sermons while the other kids were making out in the balcony. I majored in religion in college. I worked one summer at Centrifuge. And now I've devoted three of the best years of my life to live in God-help-me-Waco, Texas to go to seminary and study the Bible some more.


And I like Christianity, really I do. But there have always been some confusing parts of it - or rather of the Bible, I guess. You know, those strange verses and stories that talk about stuff that never settles right in your mind.

Now, I'm not talking about miracles like the one about some teenager who's never had sex, gets pregnant, and gives birth to baby god. That's strange, but that's not what Im talking about.

I'm talking about those hard passages like "blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the kingdom of God," which in my mind translates to "blessed are the wusses."


Or how about "to love Jesus means to hate your father and mother" - that's confusing, and seems anti-golden-rule-ish, if you ask me.

Or what about "if you say to the mountain move in the name of Jesus it will be moved."

Now that ain't right.

I'll never forget when I was a kid and I was pondering prayer (I told you I was a dork - pondering prayer at age 10), and I was standing in my backyard when I decided to test the whole "pray and it shall happen" hypothesis (what I would now call my attempt to be Hermione Granger). Now, I was torn about it, cause I figured if a mountain was moved to the sea it would really disrupt a lot of things. I mean, what about the people who lived on the mountain? Would the amount of space the mountain took up in the sea cause the shoreline to rise and cause flooding in neighboring communities? (You have to realize I had a lot of anxiety as a child - I know this now). So I decided to forego the mountain and start with something smaller. So, I looked at my house, and with all the faith I could muster, I prayed that my house would be moved down the block.

Of course, it didn't move. I was a little disappointed, but a little relieved too, cause I wasn't sure what my parents' response would be to finding our house relocated. Anyway, you get the picture. The Bible makes some strange claims.

Here's another one that youth group debates love to tackle. "If your brother strikes you, turn the other cheek."

You've got the pacifist kid of the hippie parents who stands by the rule black eye or blue, and then you've got the practical kid's parents who say to sock the bully back so he'll leave you alone. And then the conversation gets more heated and kids start talking about husbands who beat their wives, and divorce, and if a man hits his wife, is she allowed to run and divorce him, or should she just take it meekly and turn the other cheek? And of course, I always responded with "Run lady!" but always felt bad cause the Bible seemed to oppose my opinion. And I have to admit that over the years, my response hasn't changed much. It has only become more adamant. Now I say, "Lady, you grab the kids. I'll grab the car, and drive you to the police station myself. Then I'll call Big Phil and Lance, and they'll go take care of your husband - so you don't have to worry anymore!"
These are my friends, Big Phil and Lance circa 2002. You don't mess with them.
But I'm not really sure if the Bible backs me up on that response though either.

Fortunately, I have done some further reflection on this particular passage about "turning the other check" and its second story of "going the extra mile," but let's read this passage so we're all on the same page.

Matthew 5:38-41: You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." But I say to you, 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.

Man, what a command. If someone strikes you, turn the other cheek. Shoot, if someone cuts off one leg, give him your other! What's that all about? Yes! Please, victimize me more?

Or how about this - if some one wants your coat, give him your cloak as well. Great idea - you want my diamond earrings? Here, take the Rolex too. You want my car? Here's the key to the house. Why not take it all? Or better yet, you want me to carry your briefcase to work for you? Shoot, I'll carry it there and back! And can I pick up your kids from school? I'm sure mine won't mind if I'm late getting them!

Okay, I know I'm exaggerating, but still! Do you agree about how odd these statements seem?

In rabbinic literature it states that if you slap someone in the face, you have to pay him two times over a normal fine in order to apologize monetarily for your actions.

Striking someone was huge.

And it was even worse for the Romans to force a Jew to carry their items one mile. This privilege of the Romans was considered one of the worst forms of oppression in the time of Jesus. The Romans were allowed to pull someone from their job, from their family, from whatever, and force them to walk one mile with them. Naturally, they would have to walk one mile back afterwards. This puts an obvious disruption in a workday (not to mention the degrading nature of the demand that denigrates the Jew to slave-like behavior).

So why would Jesus say this? Why would he say these things that seem to re-victimize the victims even more? Isn't Jesus normally on the side of the oppressed, the estranged, and the marginalized?

Well, grasp meaning in these verses, we as readers today need to be well versed in our rabbinic literature to understand the culture at that time, and what Jesus' assertions might have meant to their original hearers.

First of all, the slap. To help our understanding of this portion of the text, I am going to need a visual aid. Big Phil, please come up here.
Big Phil & me (I'm in my Buzzard Billy's work attire) circa 2001.
Now, to backhand someone across the face such as this verse denotes, indicates a sort of superiority of the "slapper" to the "slappee" - if you will.

If I backhand Phil across the face, it communicates to him (and to anyone watching) that I consider Phil under me, lesser than me, and thus deserving of a strike such that a master would give a slave.

However, if I were to slap Phil in the face with the palm of my hand, this is a different story. To slap Phil in this manner denotes a sense of shame (as any strike to the face would), but it carries with it the connotation of equality. I am shamed by you but you are my equal, and so I slap you on the face with the palm of my hand.

A subtle difference, but key to understanding what Jesus is saying in this passage.

Think this through with me. If I were to backhand Phil in a degrading fashion, insulting him and demoting him to a position inferior to my own, I do so like this. *backhand*

But for him to turn the other cheek, what does it force me to do? It forces me to slap him across the face with my palm. *slap*

In other words, for Phil to turn the other cheek is for him to non-verbally insist that if I want to strike him again, it will have to be with him as an equal. If I want to hit him again, it has to be on equal turf, from one equal to another.

Do you see how revolutionary this is? Who has the power in the situation now? For Jesus to say this is not for the victim of the backhand to be re-victimized by further beating, but it is for the victimized to say that "to continue as such, we must be equals."

Thank you, Phil.

Let's look at this further. What about the issue of suing for the coat?

The Jews had a law that you could not sue someone beyond what they could bear. So even if someone sued you for your coat, they had to ensure that you had something to keep you warm at night.

The Jews had a lot of nice compensational rules didn't they? You smack someone, you pay him twice over for their pain... you sue someone, you have to make sure they're provided for...

So let's play this out. Let's say your financier, Kyle Lake, sues me for my coat, and in response I begin taking off my shoes and my socks and my shirt and... how is Kyle going to respond?
It's unfortunate that my only candid shot of Kyle was at a 2002 UBC pool party at his parents' ranch.
P.S. I have cropped everyone else's face out (Jen Lake, Ben Dudley, Jonathan Standefer, you're welcome).
"Hey now, hold up there!" If you're at the synagogue trying to sue someone, and all of the sudden they start giving you everything, it becomes a very embarrassing situation! "Now cut that out. Keep your clothes on for crying out loud."

Do you see how the one being sued turned the tables? Who has the power now?
And what about walking the extra mile? A Roman comes up to a Jew and humiliates him by demanding his services to carry his things for a mile. All of a sudden, the mile is up and as the Roman demands his coat back, the Jew insists on carrying it another mile.

Now, what is going to be going through the head of the Roman?

First off, confusion. Why does this Jew want to carry my things? I've already humiliated and oppressed him. What's he got a mile or so up the road there? An ambush? Am I going to be ambushed? Or what if the Roman had reached his destination and the Jew just keeps on walking? "This is my destination; give me back my things."

"Oh no, sir. I'm going to go the extra mile. I'll go ahead and carry it one mile further."

Do you see? Do you see the reversal of power? Jesus has turned the tables on the oppressors to give the victims power.

Modern politicians and psychologists would call this active resistance. Not passive aggression. No violent resistance, but active resistance.

Our tendency when someone hurts us is to seek revenge. He cheated one me?! Well, I'll show him! "So I went to Neiman Marcus on a shopping spree-uh, on the way I grabbed Sophie and Mia..." You know what I'm talking about. We have spiteful, seemingly harmless, ways of enacting revenge on people who hurt us. Other times, our hatred of pain and oppression becomes much more deeply rooted in our hearts.

You know, sometimes it's hard being a woman trying to be active in ministry, especially in Baptist churches. I've had male friends tell me to my face that God won't use me as a preacher or a pastor because I'm a woman. Add to that a very long, painful breakup with a gentleman several years ago, and for a while after that I was very angry towards men. So much so that some of my friends here with us today called me "mangry."

We joke about it now, but isn't it true? Haven't you been in an experience that caused you so much pain that it just grew and rotted out your heart? Your parents' divorce, the death of a friend, date rape, losing your job, not getting into the school you wanted, the list could go on and on. Even our nation has to deal with this. How do we choose to respond to events like 9-11?

Now the Bible does not have a straight out answer to our questions. It does not say how a woman should respond in a manner of active resistance when she is being sexually harassed by a man. Nor does it say how a black person should respond when he is turned down for a job that is given to a less qualified white person. Or how a man from Yemen should respond when he misses a plane because he was held back for questioning because he looks middle-eastern. The Bible does not have all the answers or event the right formulas. But it is very clear that revenge is not a viable option for those who are oppressed, nor is Jesus in the habit of keeping victims locked in their victimization.

Now clearly, not all pain stems from oppression. Disease and cancer take our loved ones leaving us in pain. The "turn the other cheek," "go the extra mile," scenario doesn't speak well to that. But remember, this passage is about empowerment, and I think that can speak to our pain.

Often life experiences can be so painful and leave us so empty that we feel victimized simply by anguish or anxiety. But we have hope, because God is in the business of restoration. God has the ability to empower us to stand even beneath the pain to tackle life again.

Sinead O'Connor, in speaking of the process that Ireland must undergo to come to a forgiving and healthy political relationship with England, says that regarding pain, there must be "remembering, grieving, and then healing" which gives way to forgiveness or whatever else is needed for restoration. And I have to admit, this is pretty healthy advice. Our God is a god who heals and empowers victims - whether of oppression or of the depravity of this world.

One of the most empowering words God ever spoke to me was through a counselor I met my senior year in college. I was speaking with her about the most painful (I thought) experience I had ever been through at that time in my life. She responded that I had two alternatives. I could either allow God to make good result from that situation, or I could let it destroy me. And then she told me her story about when she was in college; her mother died just a few months before her graduation. And though she grieved her mother's death for many years, she allowed God to take that situation and use her to minister to other people in pain. She has thus devoted her life to Christian counseling and helping people like me.

Do you see how God empowers people? Do you see how God can reach through pain to remind you: God exists, God remembers you, God can recreate you to be surrounded by the Spirit of Love. Isn't that a good story? Is this a story you want to be apart of - of backhanded Jews who have to walk the extra mile?

To the oppressed, God gives promotion to personhood; to the inferior, equality. And to the sadness that comes from living every day in a world full of pain and anxiety: empowerment - the power to exist again with the power of God's love and restoration at work in your life.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of the Roman government... or of modern day oppression... racism... sexism... or classism, I will fear no evil for Thou art with me...though I don't know why.



** Dedicated to the memory of friendship... Kyle Lake, Phil Shepherd, Lance Hutchins, Lynnette Ogle, Cat Weaver, Jeremy Bush, Chris Johnson, Jesse Jordan, Josie Yearwood, Jen Alexander, and everyone else. Love, Ann in Austin 2014.