Sunday, February 23, 2014


In the Ancient World everything was a whole.
God was the ruler of it all.
Religion’s business was to seek God’s will
            in all things.
The modern world put God in smaller box.
The box was constructed mostly by John Dewey
     who gave us the decimal system.
He liked everything in its place
      and God’s space was very small.                         
Most of modern life is entrusted to secular ideologies
            of politics, economics, and sociology.
Religion is relegated to the realm of
            our inmost personal feelings.

But occasionally someone reads today's lessons
         which cover everything from real estate to the legal system
          to employee rights.
Occasionally someone notices that
the Bible is about the whole human project,
and Jesus did not restrict his  mission
to the private and the personal.
If you asked Jesus whether his teachings
            were about personal or public life,
            he would not have understood the question.
It was all one life.
Occasionally  someone tries to figure out Jesus public mission
       and they usually get it wrong.

Reza Aslan’s book  Zealot portrays Jesus
            as a revolutionary concerned about the social,
            economic, and political condition of his people.
So, the argument runs, that he must have been
            part of the Zealot party,
            advocating a violent nationalist insurrection.

That runs against the modern God in a small box notion
of Jesus  as a heavenly minded spiritual teacher
            who either hadn’t noticed or didn’t care that his people
                        were an occupied, oppressed, and exploited nation
                        with the boot heel of Rome on their neck.

Responsible Biblical scholarship says both versions
            of Jesus are wrong.
Jesus was concerned about real social, economic, and political issues –
            but in a personal way, not with an ideology like modern politics
He was a revolutionary.
But he was not a Zealot working for a nationalist insurrection.
He was after a much more radical revolution than that.

Jesus knew that you can’t change the power structure of the world
            using the same violent methods that created
that power structure to begin with.
Revolutions, invasions, wars of liberation and so forth
            do not have a good track record in history.
This week we mark the 90th birthday of Robert Mugabe.
He led the violent insurrection that ousted Rhodesian President Ian Smith
            and made Mugabe President of the new nation, Zimbabwe.
For 33 years he has ruled with an iron hand
            using military force and militias to protect his power.

Mugabe’s approach is the opposite of the way
            Jesus taught his followers to act in the world.
Turn the other cheek, go the second mile, if someone sues you
            for your coat give him your cloak too.
It sounds like giving up, being a doormat.
If we search our hearts honestly
     we may be more inclined to the way of Robert Mugabe 
     than the way of Jesus.
But maybe Jesus isn't really about surrender.
Maybe Jesus was teaching a more human way
            of changing the structures of human life,
            a more personal approach than mere politics

New Testament scholar Walter Wink today’s explains today’s lesson
            as a clever form of mischief.
Our text, properly translated says
if anyone strikes you on your right cheek,
            turn to him your left.
To strike someone backhand on the right cheek
            is how the master strikes the slave.
To strike someone forehand on the left cheek
            is how one strikes an equal to challenge him to combat.

If someone sues you for your coat he just gets your coat.
But if you give him your cloak too,
            you are standing naked in front of him,
            and in that culture the person who sees the nakedness
                        of another is the one who is disgraced.

The one who could make you carry his load for a mile
            was a Roman centurion.
He could press any civilian into duty carrying his pack for a mile.
But if the civilian carried the load one step further,
            the centurion got court martialed.
So carry the load an extra mile.
Jesus was teaching non-violent ways of resisting oppression.

Let’s compare Robert Mugabe’s violence
            that led to war and finally dictatorship
            with the story of Nelson Mandela.
In his book, Invictus, John Carlin says
            the peaceful transformation from apartheid
            to a free South Africa happened because of rugby.

It happened  this way:
While Nelson Mandela was in prison,
he learned some things that grew
            into his strategy for changing South Africa.
Mandela had a simple problem.
The food was all served at once in the morning.
So his evening meal was cold.
He wanted a hot plate.

But the Afrikaner guards wouldn’t talk to him.
Mandela had no way of getting his hot plate.
So he listened to the guards  to find out what they talked about.
It was rugby. Afrikaners are just obsessed with rugby –
            which is why Black South Africans hated rugby,        
            had nothing to do with it, and knew nothing about it.
But Mandela had library privileges.
So he devoted himself to learning everything
there was to know about rugby.

Using that knowledge, he enticed the guards
            into talking with him – not about his concern –
                        but about what interested them – rugby.
Before long he had his hot plate.

That was the beginning of Nelson Mandela’s new way
            of dealing with people.
He made it his principle to treat every  human being,
            friend or foe, with basic dignity and respect.
When people were opposed to him,
            Mandela’s response was curiosity.
He wanted to understand their viewpoint.
What did they know that he didn’t?
He assumed they were children of God
            and people of intelligence,
            so there must be something in what they say.
He wanted to understand it.

His old revolutionary friends were confused.
They were as hell-bent on a bloody civil war
            as the Afrikaner militias.
He had to engage them in conversations
            which were sometimes harder than his conversations
                        with the Afrikaners.
But he kept at it.
And he won them over.

Over a course of years,
he built personal relationships, something akin to friendships,
            with the Afrikaner power structure
            starting with the prison guards and working his way up
                        to the President, F. W. de Klerk.
It started with the guards giving him a hot plate.
It culminated in de Kerk giving him a nation. 

In case a story from Africa is to far away,
            let me tell you one from our own history.
After the Republican Convention of 1860 nominated
            Abraham Lincoln for President,
            his political rival Edwin Stanton stomped out, saying,
            “I will have nothing to do with that gawking ape.”
Lincoln’s friends said, “Don’t worry. When you’re President,
            you can destroy him.”

But when Lincoln took office,
            he appointed Stanton as Secretary of War,
            the most important and powerful post in the government.
When people said to Lincoln, “What are you thinking?”
he said, “If I make my enemy into a friend,
                        have I not destroyed my enemy?”
When Lincoln died, it was Stanton who placed the coins
            on his eyes, and said,
            “Now he belongs to the ages.”

Now is this about how we practice our politics
            or how we live our personal lives.
Moses, Jesus, Mandela, and Lincoln saw it all as one life,
            a life guided by God’s ways.

Jesus’ mission was to overthrow the ways of the world,     
            the violence, coercion, one-up-man-ship, and greed.
He wanted to overthrow it all and replace it with God’s ways.
God’s ways belong in our homes and in the public square alike.

The problem isn’t religious that people engage in public life.
The problem is people carrying a religious banner
            but abandoning God’s ways for the world’s ways
                        when they enter the public square.
We have seen far to much of that in recent decades,
            worldly power players using our name.
Frankly, we are all too ready to practice the world’s ways
            in our private lives too.

But it’s all one life.
It’s all God’s life.
Jesus taught us how to live it.
He showed us the way.
And thanks be to God
            people like Lincoln, Mandela, Martin Luther King,
                        and so many of the saints
                        have shown us it isn’t just a dream.
It is a good way to live, a winning way to befriend each other,

            and a powerful way to change the world.