Impractical Jesus

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Matthew 5:38-48

During my last of around eight total years in Atlanta, I lived with my best friend Samuel. Many of you met him when he visited this fall — Samuel is an architect, and together we made quite a pair in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, an old inner city neighborhood famous for being the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Samuel and I lived in a three bedroom craftsman house built in the early 1900s. It was nothing glamorous, but because it was ours, it was fabulous. We had decorated it to suit us, with plenty of religious humor hidden everywhere. Samuel shares my belief that one of the best ways to get at serious truths is through a good old fashioned sense of playfulness.

When we displayed our nativity, a Buddha and a border collie figurine sat next to the manger as we accosted friends about whether they could prove the historical absence of either at Christ’s birth. When I noticed the wise men were absent on the day of Epiphany that year, Samuel ran to get them in the other room, explaining that they had taken the Atlanta bus system and that’s why they were late.

Finally, on our refrigerator was a sign boldly declaring:
“I have seen the truth, and it doesn’t make sense.”

This Gospel reading proves the point. It’s highly impractical and it doesn’t make any sense. It is against all of our best instincts of self-protection. Many of us don’t want to admit to having enemies, but we all do. Personally, nationally, internationally — there are people who wish us all ill. On top of that, we are constantly told who our enemies are: by opposing forces in the media and culture, by our leaders, by each other. So what are we to do with the practical fact that we all have enemies — and that what Jesus says about them just doesn’t make any sense?

Of course, just about any good Christian is at least intellectually willing to pray for our enemies, even if we don’t feel like it, but what about the rest of what he says? This stuff seems downright dangerous.

“Do not resist an evildoer”?

And who really wants to actually turn the other cheek when someone smacks them?

Finally, even Jewish law forbids anyone from taking your cloak — your outer garment — in a lawsuit. But here Jesus is, requiring that we hand it over and face the elements.

This doesn’t make any sense, you guys.

Often, I have heard that this is certainly no policy for a group of people to take. I mean, just imagine if, say, our government lived by these rules. We’d be overrun by enemies in a week, right? Because of this sense of practicality, we individualize this text, thinking that it’s only about our personal lives and our personal dealings.

But wait.

I can’t do this alone.

If I’m alone in the world and I give away my outer garment, I will freeze out there. If I give to everyone who begs from me, personally, and I have no support system, it won’t be long before I’m unable to pay my bills or pay for food. If I’m alone in the world and I refuse to resist an evildoer, I could lose everything or even die.

Practicality requires that, if we’re by ourselves in the world, we have to fail at these standards if we’re going to survive. We need other people to even have a hope of doing what Jesus says here.

Thinking about this text this week, I remembered how, at creation, God created Adam, the first human, looked around and said, essentially:

“Huh. It’s not good for the human to be alone.”

We often use this as an image for marriage, since what followed is God creating Eve, Adam’s spouse. But I think that focusing only on marriage when it comes to those first few chapters of Genesis is misguided when we consider the rest of the Bible’s witness, including today’s Gospel text.

Or consider our Old Testament reading for today: farmers in Israel were called to leave the edges of their fields and vineyards for the poor. The rest of the passage is more instruction to the Israelites about how to care for each other and for foreigners in their land, and how to live together in community. Why? Because it is not good for humans to be alone.

Every time I read this Gospel passage, it occurs to me that, practically speaking, the only type of person who is able to follow Jesus’ instructions here and manage to still live anything that resembles a secure life is a well-supported person. In order to turn the other cheek, give away your cloak and your coat, pray for your enemies, or give to anyone who begs from you, it stands to reason that it would work much better if you were secure in every sense of the word: financially, emotionally, spiritually. And in order to find security, humans have, for centuries, relied on each other, because it is not good for humans to be alone.

During the Civil Rights movement, students and others who wished to protest discriminatory policies at restaurants started holding sit-ins at lunch counters. In order to prepare, they trained one another in non-violence. No matter how badly they were talked to, no matter what names they were called, even if they were beaten, the protestors were under strict instructions not to resist. At the protests, crowds gathered around the protestors, shoving them, pouring drinks over their heads, and doing everything they could to rattle them, or better yet, to provoke them and start a fight.

The protestors trained and encouraged each other, with one major rule other than a commitment to non-violence: never go alone.

One person, they reasoned, could easily be dispatched, beaten, even killed, but multiple people enduring abuse would make a statement. After all, how long can you defend beating people who refuse to fight back, when their only crime was being black and sitting down at a restaurant, politely asking to be served? And of course, slowly and over time, it worked. Restaurants reconsidered their policies and integrated. This was, in a very literal sense, quite a case for turning the other cheek.

Of course, despite the success of the protestors, Jesus’ advice is still impractical. Even if we all stick together for security, if those who hate us are tough or determined or depraved enough, even an entire community can be overpowered and overrun without the ability or willingness to defend itself.

What then?

I am reminded of Jesus’ sleeping on the boat in the middle of a storm. The disciples essentially turn to him and say “WAKE UP! Do you want us to die?”

I feel this way about this text. We live in a terrifying world. No matter who you are, who you love, what religion you are, or what you believe politically, there is a group of people out there that absolutely hates people like you. Yes, for some of us, that number is higher than others. Some of us worry only or primarily about international threats or people who are different from us. Others of us, in addition, fear a threat a little closer to home, a threat that looks a lot more like us.

The world is a scary place, and you don’t have to be of any particular political persuasion to admit that that is a true statement.

Given that, it would seem practical that we ignore or at least try to explain away Jesus’ impractical advice. Unfortunately, just like last week, a faithful reading of Jesus’ words requires that we consider the possibility that Jesus actually meant this stuff. And we know he meant it because he practiced what he preached.

When it was Jesus’ life that was on the line, when he gathered with his disciples the night before his death, the Gospel of John gives us an account of what he said to them.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you,” he says. “I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27 NRSV).

“I do not give you peace as the world gives.”

The peace that the world gives is a promise of security. It is a promise that if we arm ourselves, protect ourselves, and earn as much as we can, we will always be safe, always be well fed, always be warm. But this is a false promise, and prosperity is a false idol. History and our own streets are strewn with stories of people who have “done everything right,” worked hard, and defended themselves well and still lost everything, been overrun, and been defeated, killed, or enslaved. As I said a few weeks ago, it’s a lot like what they say on the HBO series Game of Thrones: in the Game of Thrones, the game of prosperity and power and strength, you win or you die.

But Jesus offers us another way. A way out of the simple choice of killing our enemies or being killed by them. But it requires that we stick together and not forsake each other, continually reminding each other of God’s promise, that no matter what happens, God is with us, and even death is not the end.

This is the way of the Civil Rights protestors of the 1960s. This is the way of Martin Luther King, Jr. This is the way of the martyrs of the early church, killed for their faith. It is the way of Jesus. Do not resist an evildoer. Trust that even if you die, that is not the end, because the God you serve is greater even than death.

Nope, the truth doesn’t make any sense.

I’m a highly practical person, and this isn’t practical. It doesn’t make sense to trust in something, or someone, that you can’t actually see. But we can see each other. We can care for each other. We can make our little corner of the world better as we serve our community and tell the story of Jesus in the coming weeks: through the Transfiguration next week, then Lent, then Easter. And we can continue to show up and gather at this table, reminding ourselves of two things: that we have each other and we have the presence of Jesus. And that, despite it being highly impractical, that is all the security we actually need.

No, the truth doesn’t make sense. May we have the faith, love, and security to not make any sense either.

I want to end with the words of our epistle reading for today. Paul writes, “So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours…the world or life or death or the present or the future–all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God” (1 Corinthians 3:21-23 NRSV). Amen.

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