Sunday, February 20, 2011

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Matthew 5
38 ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,* what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

I’m trying to love Kevin O’Leary, really I am. Jesus had some famous advice regarding people who are difficult to love, and so I guess I have to give it a shot.

Kevin O’Leary, billionaire, entrepreneur, and television personality seems to just be getting started on his 15-minutes of fame. With regular appearances on three CBC programs, and soon a fourth, Kevin seems poised to take over the public broadcaster.

His job, it seems, is represent the face of pure capitalism, to speak harsh and truthful words to all the voices that might want to use business for something other than making money. He hates taxes, regulation, and anything that smacks of weakness. He’s the Simon Cowell of business and Canadian television.

You could argue he’s playing a role—much in the way Don Cherry is playing a role—making an extreme argument that paves the way for some middle-ground. Or maybe he actually believes what he is saying, something I’ve begun to fear with my capitalist brother Andrew.

Either way, Jesus says love them and pray for them, which is harder than it seems, when really all I want to do is mock them and preach about them.

The trouble started a couple of weeks ago in Matthew 5. Jesus told his disciples that entry into the Kingdom required righteousness that surpasses the righteousness of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. To establish their religious credibility, they were required to work twice as hard as the religious leaders of the day. And they were to do the hard work without any guarantee that they would get the credit they deserved.

Continuing then, in the same vein, Jesus sets out a series of hypothetical situations: offering the other cheek, giving away your cloak, and walking a second mile. All extreme, all counter to human nature: and all alive in our imaginations. Even people who have never been in a church or picked up a Bible know about “turning the other cheek” and “walking a second mile” as examples of being counter-intuitive, doing the opposite of what’s expected.

So we’re set up to understand that being Christian has something to do with doing the unexpected, doing the last thing the world expects. Then the kicker: ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Don’t tolerate them, don’t rationalize them, don’t contextualize them: love them.

Way back in minister’s school, my professor, Dr. Hospital, taught us that these are “hard sayings,” extreme positions to be taken seriously but not literally. Just as we’re not cutting off bits or gauging things out, we’re not supposed to find the nearest centurion and say “abuse me.” It is not cards and flowers for people we hate, rather it’s a departure from the typical human response of retribution and reciprocal hate.

In other words, it is about the transformed heart. Jesus said ‘the Kingdom of God is within you’ and as such, we all carry the potential for a transformed heart, even those who make a living being heartless or at least pretending to be. The transformed heart becomes the goal of living, the goal of our interaction with others, and really the only hope for humankind.

Okay, that may seem a little strong. So let me be specific. Dalia Ziada became an activist at age 8 when she was subjected to a form of circumcision and subsequently tried to convince her father and uncles to spare the other girls in the family. This led to an interest in women’s rights, and the rights of political prisoners. She organized Egypt’s first human-rights film festival back in the fall, and when the theatre was mysteriously closed at the last minute, she rented a boat on the Nile to show the films, somehow beyond the reach of the law.

She was, of course, at the centre of things in Tahrir Square in Cairo. But being an activist in Tahrir Square is hardly news. What made news was the publication she was distributing, an Arabic translation of a comic book with the title: Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story.

Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story was first published in 1958, when civil rights in the United States was still in it’s infancy, and the outcome of the struggle for racial equality was far from certain. The media was controlled by people with an interest in the status quo, and material that promoted civil rights was often intercepted and destroyed, and so a group of activists hit on the idea of a comic book.

The comic is unlike your typical superhero comic, with pictures and voices from the Montgomery bus boycott, a two-page primer on the non-violent struggle for Indian independence, and a detailed set of instructions on how to organize your movement. Page 12 includes these words:

To see your enemy as a human being, you have to stop seeing him as your enemy. Even when he does cruel, heartless things to you, he is a child of God. He is your brother, even when he hurts you.

For a generation of southern blacks eager for change, the comic was a very counter-intuitive voice. The desire to strike back, to turn to violence was natural—and expected—but not the answer. The answer, as the comic shows, was listening to Dr. King in his pulpit, seeing Mahatma Gandhi make salt at the seaside, and hearing Elizabeth Eckford of Little Rock say to the white students taunting her “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”

Now imagine the same comic being passed around the crowd in Tahrir Square, with time, place and culture being collapsed into a universal expression of freedom and human rights. Dalia Ziada meets Dr. King, meets Gandhi, meets Jesus, meets the Little Rock Nine. A cultural and religious mash-up that takes “love your enemy” and frees the imagination to apply it to any time and place. And this is precisely where transformation begins. Jesus said:

46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?

These are challenges to the imagination, not bylaws or religious law. Jesus says picture the worst kind of people doing the most obvious kind of loving and then do the opposite: avoid the easy route of saving your love for the people who love you and the people you’ve loved all along and do the hard thing. Jesus says find the people who are really hard to love, really hard, and them imagine loving them and imagine that they too are children of God.

It would sound unrealistic and maybe a little naïve, except that it sometimes works. The theme of 2011 may well be ‘tyrants on the run,’ in largely non-violent ways that would make Gandhi and Dr. King very proud. When President Obama was sworn into office the Little Rock Nine were present, from jeers and spit to cheers and the inauguration of a black president. Hearts can be transformed, and change can happen, and it begins when we imagine a world made new. Amen.


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