Sermon - 20th February 2011
Scripture - Matthew 5: 38-48
Rev Andy Braunston
Signs of the Times
Over recent weeks we’ve been fascinated by the news from North Africa and the Middle East. Protests in Tunisia grew and grew and the corrupt president fled the country. Then protests started in Egypt. Over Christmas we were impressed at how Muslims in Egypt came out to stand in solidarity with their Christian neighbours after attacks on churches. Then we watched religious and secular, Christian and Muslim protest against president Mubarak who had ruled for 30 years and didn’t trouble himself with fair elections, transparent business arrangements or human rights. Mubarak stayed on longer than his Tunisian colleague but eventually the army lost patience and he’s gone. Interestingly this is the first time I’ve ever known Amnesty International welcome a military coup! It seems to me that the protestors are showing defiant love. They show love of their country, a love which hasn’t, in the main, descended into violence on their part, but which is defiant. Their demands are moderate and reasonable – nothing less than democracy and human rights.
Now the action seems to have moved to Bahrain and Yemen, with protests in Iran, Libya and Jordan. What is fascinating to me is how, in the main, these protests have been dignified and peaceful. The violence, especially in Egypt, seemed to come from the police sent in by Mubarak to stir things up – that didn’t work and the army came out to protect the protestors. In Libya and Bahrain the government has caused the violence. People power has been amazing to watch and I keep thinking about the Magnificat when Mary sang that the Lord would topple the mighty from their thrones as well as the scenes in Eastern Europe as communism collapsed a generation ago.
Of course all is not settled; we don’t know what will happen in Bahrain, Yemen, Iran and Jordan. We don’t know how other countries in North Africa and the Middle East will react. We don’t know what type of government and the quality of democracy that will emerge in the wake of the despots who have fled or preparing to flee their countries. We don’t know but it’s fascinating to watch as is the promise of democracy evolving in parts of the world where we thought these things would never happen.
Turning the Cheek
Jesus’ words in our Gospel reading today are directly relevant to the situation we’re seeing unfold in North Africa and the Middle East because they are, for me, about defiant love. If Jesus had spoken his words to the crowds in Tahir Square he would have been well received, and not just because of his ideas about non-violence.
When we hear today’s Gospel reading we can react quite strongly to it. After all, no one likes to be a doormat and Jesus’ words could be used to keep people down, to tell them to passively accept evil and not rock the boat. His words are especially difficult for minorities to hear – particularly minorities who have been beaten and brutalised. But I don’t the purpose of his words is to encourage us to be passive recipients of brutality.
We need to know a little about Jesus’ context here to fully understand what He was talking about. In Jewish custom it was unlawful to take someone’s cloak or coat as the pledge of a loan – this is because one put one’s cloak over oneself at night in order to keep warm. Jesus suggests that if someone sues for your shirt, offer them your coat too. Literally these words seem strange, but imagine the effect of offering the cloak when the other would know the Jewish Law and the custom of sleeping under the cloak.
The simple act of offering the coat too is a defiant one, saying that you can’t bully me. It’s a form of resistance, not using violence but keeping dignity.
Similarly the command to turn the other cheek is an alternative to the senseless violence that plagues our world, but the end result would have been shame on the person who has struck. We know from domestic violence that the perpetrator of violence needs to see the fear and the shame in the one whom he is beating. Turning the other cheek is a way of being strong, keeping control, not sinking to the level of violence and keeping one’s own dignity.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t take action against violence –particularly domestic violence, but it does mean we don’t stoop to the level of the thug.
Roman law compelled someone to help carry a soldier’s pack for up to a mile if asked. The most famous example of this was in the Passion narrative where Simon of Cyrene was drafted in to help carry Jesus’ cross. Again the “going the extra mile” is not an act of selfless goodwill but about keeping dignity and control in situations where we are oppressed.
All these examples of Jesus are about showing love for enemies, but it’s a tough love which tells the truth and exposes reality. Our problem with the English language is that “love” means so many things, from the soppy Valentines love, the marvellous infatuation with a new lover, the mature love that has stood the test of time, the love we have for families and friends as well as the love we may show to the stranger in need. Love is strong.
The crowds in Tahir Square were, in a way, showing love to Mubarak as they were telling him what he had to do if he was to have any integrity left. They showed love by not descending to violence
We don’t often hear bits of Leviticus read in church. It’s a book containing much of the Jewish Law and many of the laws make no sense to us, and some are rather troubling. But today’s selection fit with the Gospel reading – they are about perfection and law. All the laws mentioned are about justice, integrity and fairness. They admonish the People not to hate but to speak and get issues sorted out, to tell the truth in love.
We’re back to the crowds in the squares, telling their truth in love. Saying that they won’t be oppressed anymore and demanding change.
So what does this mean for us? We don’t need to gather in the squares of our cities to demand the overthrow of an unelected government as we can vote them out. We are generally free to gather and peacefully protest if we want to. So what of Jesus’ words?
I think there are some connections. Many of us still get hassle, sometimes violence, often scorn. Would the idea of turning the cheek, acting with dignity bring shame on those who treat us like this?
How can we tell the truth to those who still say that we’re not welcome, that we need to be healed, that we’re demonised because they don’t understand us? This week Churches Together in England asked MCC not to apply to join as, in essence, our application would cause them pain. How do we tell them our truths?
A week tomorrow I am speaking here to a multi-faith group which are discussing sexuality. How can we show them ourselves, our lives, our experiences so we’re not talked about but rather talked to?
What does defiant love look like in these circumstances? How do we show that we love our enemies whilst not being frightened by them? These are the challenges we’re left with in this reading.
I think we respond to these challenges by seeing how our love can be defiant in situations where we’re marginalised. We can show love but we don’t need to be doormats. We can show love but tell our truth. We can meet violence with love, but a defiant love which tells the truth about what is going on. This is defiant love is justice.