Sermon,  Sermons

Teacher: Reframing the Margins

An interesting thing about these instructions Jesus gives. He is not telling the people to live in acquiescence to the societal practices of humiliating the marginalized. Rather, Jesus is inviting them into nonviolent resistance.

So, Matthew’s account of this scene specifies that if someone strikes you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. As you may well know, in ancient cultures (and many contemporary ones) the left hand is considered bad, dirty. So to use the left hand for anything other than to clean oneself is to invite religious, if not judiciary repercussions.

Furthermore, only the privileged (wealthy, in office, etc.) were allowed to strike another person without impunity. To deliver a strike with the backhand is the ultimate insult. One in authority over another had every right to strike a socially lower ranking individual, but would do so with the back of the hand. An open-handed or fisted strike indicates equal footing, a worthy opponent.

But a lower-cast servant or slave or otherwise lower class citizen would never be allowed to strike back. But to offer the other cheek puts the one striking in a bind. This person must either use the left hand to execute the backhanded strike, or use and open-palmed or fisted right hand strike whereby placing the stricken on equal footing – worthy of being accorded recognition as such.

 Michael Frost, pastor, author, and excellent example of an effective teacher (whose latest book is called, Keeping the Church Weird: Embracing the Discipline of Being Different), explains:

“turning the other cheek is a way of undermining the whole idea of institutionalized inequality. It strips the oppressor’s power to dehumanize the other.”

Michael Frost, Keeping the Church Weird: Embracing the Discipline of Being Different

 Jesus taught those gathered to listen a new way to exist. He explained and outlined how to live into the dignity with which they are created, while being vulnerable and gracious – firm yet loving.

The so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral was not articulated by John Wesley as such. He did, however, teach this basic outline to explain how we understand God, know God. He built on the traditional Anglican premise that we know God through scripture, via the rich wisdom of tradition, and by our God-given capability to reason. Wesley then added that we also know God by experience. There is nothing like, nor as powerful as that of experiencing the presence of God.

Wesley taught that pure an undefiled religion was so much more than just following rules, outlining doctrine. He developed a system – methodical – around which people who wished to grow and hold each other accountable and become the church perfecting, the church is known by their love – he developed a system that encouraged rigorous study of scripture, and reading the wisdom of that great cloud of witnesses that came before us; he included sets of questions and tools that stimulate the brain and spurred on God-given reason. And he knew the beautiful-terrifying experience of living empowered by the consuming fire of the Spirit of God, and doing so in faith.

Teachers are often philosophical – they wonder and consider from every angle. They love history, and to compare and weigh the past with the present and how that might inform the future. They are also, frequently, really great at debate – not necessarily to provoke (though might find some pleasure in such), but to generate good, meaningful, productive conversation about important things.

So, in the Genesis reading, Joseph tells his brothers, though you meant it for harm (out of jealousy, misunderstanding, whatever) God meant it for good. That is, God used the situation for the good of the people, of everyone. In other words, God makes all things right, despite, in spite of our continuously choosing what is not best – acting out of jealousy or misunderstanding or hurt or ignorance . . . We may choose badly (that is, not according what is good and right within myself as for those around me and beyond) but God uses those so-called bad choices as opportunity to show God’s goodness anyhow.

In psychology, there is a healing technique referred to as “reframing.” Our memories are fickle. We all have likely experienced that time together with old friends or siblings reminiscing over a past event. And someone brings up an incident and you think, huh, I don’t remember it that way, or what?! That’s not what happened!”

We all have our perspectives – who we are is influenced by what Adrian van Kaam describes as our formation field. Our perspective is shaped by family of origin, place of residence. We are influenced by the time in history and the collective wisdom of our history. The chemical slurry sloshing around our brains, and the overall health of our bodies give weight to how we welcome a new day. Our relationships, where we work, what value our society gives to those things – all this and so much more determine how I viewed an incident, and then, how I remember it.

At the same time, we possess varying degrees of openness to suggestibility. If I experience the humiliation of forgetting my lines during an important speech, and then you tell me that you were actually moved by what I said after that hitch, what I remember as being a knock on my credibility pole is now evidence of my discerning what really needed to be said. Nothing changed about my presentation – it already happened. But how I remember it is altered.

When someone strikes you on your right cheek, feel the sting – the pain is real; breathe in the life-giving breath of the Spirit and notice, discern the situation, what is true about who you are; take another breath, stand up a bit straighter and present the other cheek. Perhaps the person will put out the right hand in apology.

Even now Jesus is teaching us: understand the context. Be present and know what he means by what he says. Read scripture, then listen to the wisdom of those who have gone before us. But not just the ones you like or agree with, necessary. Ask the Holy Spirit to give you discernment, because when you ask for wisdom, the God of light will give it generously and ungrudgingly (James 1:5). And then, what do you experience?

When someone strikes your right cheek – when an injustice is perpetrated against you – how do you respond? When I am treated unfairly due to my gender – the opportunity for which is underscored by the very fact that women are still not constitutionally afforded equal rights – how do I turn my other cheek? How do I turn the other cheek when no matter how I respond to a challenge of my skill, education, credentials, and experience it is one of damned if I do and damned if I don’t? I show emotion and it is perceived as feminine – of course, she would cry, she’s a woman. I show anger and it’s seen as, well we are in church so I’ll say brash, but the word I’m looking for rhymes with itchy.

But this is mild in comparison to our brothers and sisters who live a reality of otherness – color of skin, mannerisms, any perceived handicap that makes misunderstanding extraordinarily easy. Beverly Daniel Tatum defines racism as a system of oppression based on race. Jemar Tisby puts it more succinctly: racism is prejudice with power. It is uncomfortable to discuss prejudice, especially while members of the group who hold power.

Anthropologists now agree that there is only one race: the human race. So to view another human being based on ethnic markers is more ludicrous than ever supposed. Still, when I perceive something different about another, my first inclination is to place a value on it – make a general assumption about those indicators of difference and react in my spirit with a conditioned response that ought not have any bearing on the actual personhood of the one standing before me – this person who does bear the image of God.

There are many ways to mindfully recondition our hearts and minds to see a person first as image-bearers, but that is for another time.

But it is Black History month and it’s the last Sunday of the month and it would behoove me to explicitly draw attention to it at least now. In general, we are people who do not like the rock the boat. It is uncomfortable, it takes a lot of energy, and it is unpredictable – one cannot know precisely how others will react to a challenge – particularly one that is highly charged.

Yet, if we do not challenge the status quo, nothing will change. And if nothing changes, well, everything changes – since intentional effort isn’t being diverted to making things right, growing and become more of who we are most truly as God’s image-bearer, everything falls apart, devolves: entropy.

And this is what Jesus seems to be getting at when he speaks about turning the other cheek. Reframing the margins, Michael de la Torre, a professor at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, in his Liberating Jonah: Forming an Ethics of Reconciliation, examines the Jonah and the whale narrative. Most of us, I would guess, do not know the fullness of issues at hand in this story. You see, Nineveh was the dominant country. They were oppressors of Israel. But Jonah was an Israelite. He was a member of the people group to whom God spoke. Jonah knew that God is a forgiving deity, full of mercy, motivated by Love – and that God’s desire is to be in relationship with those whom God created.

So when God asked Jonah to go to Nineveh to give them a message, he ran away! He was in the habit of being bitter, angry, resentful. His disposition was that of disdain toward his oppressors and to do something about making it right might mean a kind of change that he could not cope with. Either they would lash out and kill him, or they would repent and God would forgive them. Neither of these was tenable to Jonah’s sensibilities.

Still, he didn’t organize an army to obliterate the place and win back their freedom. He didn’t go and say, “I’m sorry, I know you didn’t mean it, but would you please reconsider our situation?” No, he walked into the city and confronted them – however inelegantly – “forty days and you will be overthrown!” Jonah walked into the city as an instrument of God’s righteousness and justice – and mercy. He was present to them and in essence turned his other cheek – presenting them a human being who has been marginalized, oppressed . . . and represented by a God who Loves, is the definition of Love. And Nineveh saw him as he was – a human being, a person whom they oppressed, and they repented. Jonah was still in need of an attitude adjustment, but God was afforded the opportunity to be known through Jonah.

So now we are seeing this in situations like that of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, congressperson from NY. She has faced petty criticism, irrelevant jabs and responded not with anger, but with humor. Whether or not you agree with her politics, she is a fantastic example of other-cheek turning. Instead of lashing out in anger, or retreating into herself in fear of further criticism, she address it with humor, and then continues to advocate, represent the people she was elected to represent.

Even if you or I are not overtly targeted for marginalization, underrepresentation, diverted resources – if I am for those who are, if I stand alongside and ask to be shown the reality of the situation  . . . and (crucially) have eyes to see – I might also become a target. Even by those whom I profess to be in solidarity with. But if something is not right, if all are not treated with dignity and regard, and I am in a position of power (whether you realize it or not – please open your spirit to God’s spirit on the matter because unless you possess no agency, you enjoy some measure of power over another) if something remains unjust in this world, it is human, it is God-given, it is essential to our very existence and being – to address it.

A skilled teacher will observe and guide, bring helpful information to a matter, and draw a diagram to show how to do something. An effective teacher explains a situation in such a way that it is understandable – steps to take, how to proceed. I’m not the most skilled at teaching, the spiritual gifting tending more to the truth-telling end of the spectrum than the outlining-a-plan end. But Jesus, Rabbi, is preeminent teacher and draws a clear diagram for us here.

Reframing the margins is about perspective. It is about learning how to take those moments to understand the situation, and a few more to moments to listen, discern what the Spirit of God is asking us to do about it. And then doing it.

This is what we will be doing during the day retreat March 23rd – if you are interested, please talk with me about it.

This is also what I will be asking us to do during Lent. Ash Wednesday will be here in 10 days, when we will be present with one another in God’s presence, being reminded that we are shaped by the dirt of the earth, dust. And we will covenant together to walk a little more slowly, intentionally through the following 50 days, mindful of how Jesus walked the earth – teaching in relevant modes, calling out the injustices as a prophet, moving from town to town as an apostle would, nurturing the sick with a shepherd’s care, attracting thousands to hear the amazing truth that God loves so much God came here in human form (the evangelist, if you weren’t following).

One of the ways we can engage Lent, is by not just giving up something for Lent for its own sake, but to give as a Lenten practice.

            The Durand United Methodist Church is intentional about our aim to be inwardly renewed with God’s Love, so we can be Love in the community. We are also part of the Durand Ecumenical Council who claim the directive to actively support all members of our community irrespective of difference.

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