Sunday, September 16, 2012

Yeah, You Heard Me Right

Yeah, You Heard Me Right
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
September 16, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Romans 12:14
Luke 23: 26-38
Jonah 4: 1-10 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show us the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

As I said last week, Paul seems to up the ante from this point on when describing what a true Christian looks like, as if that were possible. There has not been a phrase yet from this passage that I can look to and say that I truly reflect what Paul is describing, but here is where we start to get into the really hard stuff, even to wrap your mind around, even to simply agree with, because here we get into the raising up of enemies, the building up of those who seem to make your life miserable. Because this week's passage doesn't just have to do with enemies, but one greater than any philosophical "enemy" type, but is rather: "Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them." Yes "Bless those who persecute you" and in case you missed it, there is the yeah, you heard me right double down, "Bless and do not curse them." But to put this in context let's look at where we've come. Romans 12 beginning with verse 9:  

9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 

Then the beauty of this passage is that we actually have Jesus obviously doing just this, amidst ultimate persecution he blesses his persecutors, Luke 23:26-38.
26 As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus. 27 A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. 28 But Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. 29 For the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’ 30 Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ 31 For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
32 Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” [1] 

So there you have it, sermon over. Paul's description says, bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them, and here we have Jesus, persecuted, on trial, carrying a cross, beaten, abused, jeered, cursed, abandoned, and he says, "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do." Jesus gives us a perfect example of the very extreme version of this mark. There is no need really to illustrate it any better. In the face of all that hate, Jesus blesses, asks God to forgive them, taking the time to understand the other's viewpoint, that we simply are ignorant of what we do. We just sometimes are blind to reality, and we do things that are in everyway wrong, hurtful, hateful, and destructive. So he puts himself in our shoes, but what would we do in his? Could we do it? Could we bless, rather than curse those who are persecuting us at this level. I've never been persecuted at that level, but in the small stuff where I've though, hey this isn't fair, or hey why are they treating me this way, I certainly never tried to empathize, feel for, or even like whoever was doing whatever it was to me, not to mention, going a proactively selfless and blessing them. No not even close. Again I hold the mirror up, and if this is a Christian, I'm not sure what I am, but I'm not that.
Even though this passage is clear, and the example Christ gives us is perfect, I do think there is more to this text than meets the eyes. I said earlier we were blind, as humans I mean, that often we, as Jesus puts it, "know not what we do," but we also don't seem to know what others are doing either. We are so caught up in our own world, and our own perspective that the view of the other is far far from our ken, (I've always wanted to use that word, and in this context it is the best word, it's not just understanding, it's as if our mind just isn't big enough, doesn't function in that way).
One of the things I found this week in my research really opened my eyes a little bit, it made me think seriously about the way we relate to eachother as humans, and the lack of trust we truly have. Again I want to look at the original Greek of this letter because there is something quite astonishing. Remember last week when we were trying to get at "Extend hospitality to strangers" and we found the word that they translated as "extend" was "diokontes," which really meant to run after as if to catch, and we took that to mean a breaking down the walls and times, and a really seeking brand of hospitality. Now get this, the word that is translated as persecution in this passage is the same word. I know right, what kind of word games are you playing here Paul? How much is lost in translation. Get this: last week, "diokontes philoxenian." "Extend Hospitality to strangers. This week, eulogeite tous "bless those" do you hear our word Eulogy there? Then "diokontos humais" persecute you. So what was last week, extending, is this week, persecuting. Unbelievable.
How can that be the case? How can the same word be used in two sentences in a row, to refer to the absolute opposite of ideas, and that it would be completely lost in translation in English? Now I see where the translators are coming from, in the context, especially because it says right after, bless and don't curse, there would have to be a negative connotation, because you'd have to be a little lost, and in need of the "yeah you heard me" clarification: bless and don't curse. But I can't help but think that there is something more here than simply persecution, but a deeper poetic truth about human relationships, and the interconnectedness between hospitality and persecution, yes I said, that hospitality and persecution are interconnected.
Bear with me, if I was a lawyer, and this was a court room, I can imagine someone might have just said I object, "he's making irrational and irrelevant connections, and leading the jury down a rabbit hole, trying to downplay the persecution part, simply because blessing those who persecute us is impossible." Am I right, maybe, well I would ask the judge for a little leeway, simply because the new evidence of the same word being used in opposite ways has thrown us all for a loop, so leeway granted? Now I know what they mean when they say bully pulpit.
But yes hospitality and persecution interconnected. I've been reading The Hunger Games this past week. I finally finished the marathon book series I had been reading all summer and DeAnna had read The Hunger Games and suggested it to me. With the movie out, I wanted to check the book out before seeing the movie because you can never regain your imagination's freedom of a good story once you've seen the movie. Have any of you read it? Don't worry I haven't read enough to ruin it for you, but just enough to get me thinking about my sermon for this morning. The thing that struck me as related to this sermon was her lack of trust of someone truly trying to help her.
For those of you who are not familiar with the story. The Hunger Games is set in a future dystopian version of America, a nation called Panem. There had been a rebellion at some point that was squelched by the central authority, referred to as The Capitol. Since the rebellion in a way to keep order and the allegiance of the outlying 12 districts, the Capitol has decreed that there be an annual "Hunger Games," where a male and a female "tribute" from each district will be chosen, by draw or volunteer, to fight to the death in a huge televised manipulated natural terrain arena. One survivor the winner and 23 deceased the losers, pretty intense competition. The entire games are televised like a huge media circus, combination of the Olympics and reality TV. Now what got me is that the main character a young girl from district 12, who volunteered to save her sister from having to go, after her name was drawn, never can trust anyone. She is always concerned that anyone and everyone who is nice to her must have an agenda, which is interesting because she is wholly motivated by selfless devotion for her sister, but she is unable to believe that anyone would be selfless enough, and love her in that way, too, willing to sacrifice themselves for her. Now obviously her situation is extreme, in that there are 23 other folks whose life depends on her death, but it got me thinking, how often do we mistake kindness given to us, as motivated by the other's selfish motives? How often do we trust the other enough to take kindness as kindness, or is our guard always up, as if we ourselves were trapped in some kind of winner take all Hunger Games? How often do we even see Jesus' death as a way to manipulate us into following God? As if Jesus' sacrifice wasn't out of love, but just a convoluted system to get us in church and behaving. For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son, that we attend, tithe, and behave. I don't think that's what John 3:16 says, but has our version of Christianity become so cynical and systematic that this is the reality? Father forgive us we know not what we do.
To a person who has lost trust in people, lost faith in humanity, persecution and hospitality look eerily similar. Wait, why are you helping me? What do you want? I don't want to be in your debt. It reminds me of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying as the Bundren family repeatedly responds to people who want to help them with, "Well we don't want to be beholden." We don't want to be beholden because real vulnerability of relationship is what follows. What follows is a need to look at the other rather than just at yourself, your own view, your own freedom? Much is at stake, when you accept that diokontes. "Someone running after you to try to catch you." What do they want? Paul seems to say, doesn't matter, bless them. Pray for them, trust them, love them. But wait, how will I know the difference? Doesn't matter, bless them, pray for them, trust them love them. But what if they mean me harm. Doesn't matter, bless them, pray for them, trust them, love them. But what if they have an agenda, hello, doesn't matter, bless them, pray for them, trust them, love them. How can you be serious?  How can I bless someone without knowing what they're motivation is? Doesn't it matter. No, Bless them, Yeah, you heard me right, bless and do not curse them.
If Jesus can bless his persecutors, real persecutors, and I can't think of any agenda worse, or punishment, or pain worse than crucifixion, what could someone do to you that would be anywhere close to that, so it doesn't matter, bless them, pray for them, trust them, love them. All of a sudden, again it becomes not about you  and your reaction, but about them, and their point of view and their needs. The girl in "The Hunger Games" loved her sister that much, but couldn't understand how anyone could love her that much. She was in need, but knew not what she needed. We can start with trying to love those who diokontes us "running after us" with hospitality, and eventually can grow to love those diokontes, "running after us" to persecute us, because the word is the same, there is no difference, just human beings, who all need the same thing, whether they are hospitable with a hidden agenda, whether they are sacrificing all for a loved one, whether they are persecuting others, they all are in desperate need of love, we are all in desperate need of love, and we continue to know not what we do, nor what we need, but Jesus knew, and he gives it freely, the ultimate blessing, of love, may we begin to truly learn it ourselves. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 23:26-38). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.