Sunday, February 12, 2012

To Do the Opposite

To Do the Opposite
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
February 12, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 6: 20-36
Ruth 1:6-18

This week in class, having arrived in my survey of World Literature back to the west and in this case in the Middle Ages, we looked at The Rule of St. Benedict. For those of you who do not know, this is a document--one  of the few from the earliest years following the Fall of the Roman Empire that we have--that gives the rules for life as a Monk in a Benedictine Monastery. Many of these rules are still followed in Benedictine Monasteries today. In Chapter 4 of that book, there is a list of 72 items, entitled "The Instruments of Good Works." It is this list that I went over with my students. I wanted them to look at seeing the ideals that Monks tried to live up to, though we will certainly in our further reading, find many occasions where the reality will fall way short. We looked at that list of 72 things and I asked them which ones they thought would be beneficial to live by and which ones they didn't. Only one student all day asked me what I meant by beneficial, which I thought was cool, because it showed he was thinking. I said, "They are beneficial, in the sense that if people lived that way the world would be a better place, that is the distinction." He said ok. There was everything on that list from adultery, to fasting. . . We had great discussions about some of them, but it was amazing what they chose to eliminate, and what they chose to keep. Especially because I had scratched one thing that most of them kept, and they scratched one that I didn't think they would. I scrapped: #60. To obey in all things the commands of the Abbot or Abbess even though they (which God forbid) should act otherwise, mindful of the Lord's precept, "Do what they say, but not what they do.", which most of them kept. I was amazed because I thought most of them would scrap that one quickly,  you know being the free thinking know it all teenagers they are, but no they didn't have trouble with that one. The one they scrapped that I thought was interesting was #20, "To become a stranger to the world's ways."  I was amazed. I said, "So you all have no problem following a leader who is saying and doing different things, but you have trouble seeing that the ways of the world are harmful." It made me think a lot this week about how the world ways are different from the ways of God, and how that message is being lost. Especially in an election year, where you can't watch TV without some politician claiming to stand for the ways of God, very much in the world. But then again that proves that my students are more typical than I thought, especially since we seem to put more faith in politicians and government finding solutions to the world's problems than we do God.
There is no portion of the life of Jesus that shows us how very different God's ways are to our own than Jesus' two most famous Sermons. The sermon on the Mount, which is found in Matthew's Gospel, and our passage for this morning that comes from Luke's so called, "Sermon on the Plain." Basically there are two parts of this morning's lesson. The first is the parallel of the Beatitudes, where Jesus shows how the Kingdom of God is different from the way our world appears, almost the complete opposite. And then the second part, which seems to me is the way that Jesus is suggesting people should act in order to make that upside down flip happen.
So let's look at the world Jesus is describing first.
It's the poor who are blessed not the rich. . .

It's the hungry who are filled. . .

It's the criers who will laugh. . .

So when people hate, exclude, defile and defame you, and you should rejoice and leap for joy.

If you are rich woe to you because you've reached the top.

If you are full now you will be hungry.

If you are laughing now you will mourn and weep.

And when people speak well of you, woe, woe, woe to you. . .

If that is not turning our world upside down, I don't know what is. This describes a complete and total reversal of fortune, one that doesn't just say that the poor will be made rich, but one who suggests that the rich will also be made poor. If that is the case everything that we do to further our own success would definitely be wrong because any move up would instead be a move down. So is that then the key? We should do the opposite of what we think we should do. . .
One of my favorite TV shows is Seinfeld. It has covered so many great ideas. For being a show that is supposedly about nothing, it somehow keeps finding ways to make it into my sermons. This time again it's my favorite character, George. He decides one day that his life is absolutely horrible. He's broke, He's Unemployed, He's hopelessly single, and he lives with his unbearable to say the least parents. He feels that he has hit rock bottom. He says at one point, "Every instinct that I've ever had in my life is wrong." So the clever smart aleck character Jerry suggests to him that he should do the opposite, saying, "If every instinct you have is wrong then the opposite would have to be right." It starts with him instead of eating tuna on toast, he eats chicken salad on rye, then when a beautiful woman appears to be giving him the eye, Jerry and Elaine tell him to go talk to her. George says, "Bald men, who have no job, and live with their parents do not approach strange women," but he does the opposite. He goes up to her and repeats his line, "Hello my name is George, I'm unemployed, and I live with my parents." Instead of laughing at him, or turning him down, she tilts her head to the side, smiles deeply, and says, "I'm Victoria, hi!" His opposite day lands him a job with the Yankees, a good relationship, his entire world turns around. His road to success is paved. He says at one point, "This is no longer an experiment. This is my religion." It is interesting though to think, at what point does the opposite stop being the opposite and become the new way you think. . . It is here I think where the problems with strictly following this type of opposite rule comes into play, that these opposites are not really the opposite.
So let's look at what Jesus prescribes as the How, to the Kingdom of God flip flop, the second part of our lesson for this morning. Look at this to do list. . .
Love your enemies,
Do good to those who hate you,
Bless those who curse you,
Pray for those who abuse you.
If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also;
From anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.
 Give to everyone who begs from you;
If anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.

Can you even consider this the opposite of what our instincts are? In some ways maybe, but I think it goes even beyond merely opposite, at least in the self serving way that George figures it. The radical nature of loving your enemies, blessing those that curse you, and the rest well surpasses, changing from toast to rye, tuna to chicken, and approaching a strange woman, who you are sure will reject you. If I could sum up what all of these things are saying, it is completely forget about you self interest.
            Let's take a look at the biggest one: Loving your enemies. . . It is interesting to think for a minute about this one. Mostly I think people take that this to mean that you really aren't supposed to have enemies because loving them would make them no longer enemies. This may be true, but this idea enemies intrigues me. I want us to all think about what makes someone an enemy. It's funny that when Jesus said love your neighbor someone pipes up and asks, who is my neighbor giving Jesus a platform to tell us a parable to teach us about neighbors, in that case, "The Good Samaritan." No such luck here, but is that because everyone knows what an enemy is? Maybe, at least in theory. . . I mean I thought so, but when I tried to come up with one specific enemy I had trouble. I couldn't think of a single person that I would consider an enemy. I mean that's a pretty harsh distinction, but I could think of a lot of people I have trouble loving. The only people that would make the enemy distinction though I really don't even know. It seems that enemies have to do with group distinctions rather than individual ones. I mean enemies may mean like someone from an enemy nation, or an opposite political view point. In these election years it is easier to group people into those categories of friends and enemies, but unless you are running for office yourself against another person those enemies aren't really individual people, but rather people who have conflicting ideas or visions for the future, your future.
            So what makes people enemies? In both of these cases enemies seem to be the people who could completely alter your life in ways you do not want to have happen. In the case of enemy nations, there is the fear that they could violently change or end our lives, in the case of political enemies it seems we build the same kind of things up in our minds, as if the other party is going to change our world in ways we cannot accept. In both cases, it is very possible that they will. How are you supposed to love someone that stands to put in jeopardy your very way of life, your values, your safety, your rights, your freedoms. There are really significant challenges that we face. How can we love those things, those things that challenge our very being. It's alot easier to downgrade "enemies" to those people in your life who are unlovable, who rub you the wrong way, and try to love them, but instead it says enemies.
            Now I didn't necessarily bring this up to answer this question, but to illustrate how difficult this command from Jesus can be. It would be way too easy for me to say these things shouldn't matter to us because we are Christian. . . but they do. I don't want to cheapen this by offering an easy prescription, pretending that enemies don't exist, that by loving them we can make them cease to be enemies. I don't think that is what it's about.
Let me offer an idea though because I posed earlier the thought that Jesus' list of opposites has to do with not focusing on our self interest. We should always keep in mind that Jesus' mission took him to the cross. That on the way to the cross when people were abusing him physically and mentally in ways that would make the word abuse not even come close to describing, Jesus said, "Father forgive them they know not what they do." Jesus not only preaches it here on the Plain, but practices it all the way to Calvary. Perhaps that is what it takes for the kingdom of God to be a reality here on Earth. I mean Jesus' loving of his enemies, did not magically make them not want to hurt him, or cease to be enemies to his well being. It simply meant that what they could do to him was made somehow made irrelevant by God.
St. Francis puts this together in his prayer, that I placed in the bulletin as the Prayer of Preparation. That the way to become an instrument of God's peace is to seek the opposite of our desires because he says that it "is in giving that we receive, in pardoning that we are pardoned, and in dying that we are born to eternal life." George's opposites are just reworkings of his original desires. One could argue that the opposite of a Republican is a Democrat, or vice versa, maybe that the opposite of an Iranian is an Israeli, that we could do the opposite by seeking our own interest in the opposite way. There is a problem with that way of opposite thinking because you just shift your desires in an opposite way in hopes to control and gain your own reward in another way. It seems like it needs to be more holistic opposite. That instead of seeking our own reward, we simply shouldn't.
It is much easier for us to not acknowledge that God's ways are very much a challenge to us. My students I think grasped that by not grasping it. It was easier for them to strike it from their list because they did not want to deal with the difficulty of the possibility that 1. God exists, or 2. that God could see the world very differently from what they do, 3. what that would mean. It takes amazing faith to not seek your own reward, believing that the only reward that is valuable would come from God, and would come without having to seek it.
It is interesting how Jesus frames the second half of his message, suggesting that people already have their reward for seeking their own interest. The idea is that you might just actually get what you seek, if so great, but look around at our world. How great is this reward that we have gained for ourselves. It seems to be a reward that we constantly have to defend and protect from enemies who may just try to take away all the reward we have amassed. Another thing hard to ignore today, is the tragedy of the life of Whitney Houston, whose talent the world lost yesterday. A woman that many would say had it all, but even "it all" was not enough for her. Our world is not a place of peace, nor does it look anything like what Jesus describes as the kingdom of God. Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and its righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you, allelulia. Perhaps it is time that we truly try the opposite, the real opposite as truly difficult as that may be, not seeking our own interest but instead seeking the kingdom of God, which we must have the faith to believe that God has the power to completely flip this world upside down.