Sunday, February 23, 2014

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Matthew 5
38"You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' 39But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. 43"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

If you’re going to walk the extra mile, you should at least know how far you’re expected to walk.

People of a certain age can tell you that a mile is 5,280 feet. I’m trying to be polite, but if you know this, you are dating yourself. You might want to look into the new system, let’s call it ‘distance for dummies’ where a kilometre is 1,000 metres.

But the Bible is clear when it says ‘walk the extra mile too’ and so I’m back to my original question. Is it the Roman mile, at a mere 4,851 feet? Or the Scottish mile (5,928’), about the distance from the castle to the Queen’s palace at the bottom of the hill? Perhaps a nautical mile, longer at 6,080’ and more likely to require swimming? Whatever you do, don’t volunteer for the Russian mile, which comes just over 24,000 feet. Everything is bigger in Russia.

Purists, of course will demand we put the Bible in the right historical context, and that would take us back to the Roman mile. Mile is variation on the Roman word for a thousand, which is the number of paces a marching Roman army would cover in traveling one mile. But even this was variable, with weather, terrain and fatigue all having an impact on the length of a mile.

I think my new favourite is the so-called ‘metric mile,’ or 1,500 metres, mentioned more than once at Sochi and a popular distance for those who have a foot in both camps. At 4,921 feet, it’s only slightly more than the Roman mile and less than the regular mile, and so maybe a good choice for walking the extra mile.

The extra mile, of course, is only one of several verses that scholar’s call the ‘hard sayings of Jesus.’ Turn the other cheek, surrender your cloak, go the extra mile, love your enemies—all these sayings describe something that is difficult for most of us. They all require us to approach perfection, which is where Jesus ends the passage: ‘Be perfect, just as God is perfect.’

Now, perfection is a tricky topic when it comes to a life of faith, since our entire religion is based on the assumption that we are redeemed sinners. Perfection might be a good goal, but it’s entirely unrealistic. And even if we could achieve it, our own history tells us that perfection leads to a sense of supremacy, which is—of course—sinful.

This hasn’t stopped the church from trying at various moments in our history. Just now we are sitting in a former Methodist church, and the Methodists were among the most famous to fall into this trap. The name itself came from the Wesley brother’s methodical approach to personal conduct, and the abiding belief that perfection is possible.

The Methodists embraced Christian perfection (they preferred the term ‘sanctification’) and made it the goal of faith. Early meeting books listed the names of members and included a code (the letter ‘S’) to indicate the precious few considered ‘sanctified’ or particularly holy. But even the sanctified could be tempted to sin, and would therefore need to seek forgiveness.

In other words, the idea of sanctification doesn’t really work. We all need goals, and some do a better job achieving them than others, but at the end of the day, only God is perfect. Again, you might approach perfection, but the moment you begin to like yourself for it, your perfection melts away.

Of course, the world out there has an equally confused approach to perfection. At Sochi, we marvel at perfect and nearly perfect performances, and have come to expect it from these young people. Some, like Patrick Chan, have gone so far as apologizing for his seeming lack of perfection, achieving silver rather than the gold we covet.

At the same time, we tell kids that they are great even when they’re not, we’re told not to correct obvious mistakes for the sake of their fragile sense-of-self, and we won’t let them compete for fear that some may lose. They we put them in front of the television and say ‘you could be the next Hayley Wickenheiser or the next Clara Hughes.’

And this moral confusion isn’t limited to kids. The world will tell you to have a perfect home and perfect children and the perfect job and then tell you to expect less and plan for the worst because we live in uncertain times and you can’t depend on anyone but yourself. Every message is a mixed message: you can’t buy happiness but you can get everything you want with just three easy payments. But only if you act now.

In many ways, we could sum up everything Jesus is saying in this passage with the words ‘do the thing least expected.’ In an imperfect world, seek something approaching perfection. In war, seek peace. When compelled to help, help more. When someone is obviously your enemy, learn to love them, even if you don’t like them at all. And walk the extra mile.

This last one is curious, because it seems to continue the idea of turning the other cheek. The last thing we are likely to do when someone strikes us is say, ‘here, hit me again.’ Likewise, if compelled by some seasoned soldier to carry his pack for a mile, the last thing we’re going to say is, ‘that’s it? I was just starting to get into it.’ But when we do the least expected thing (as Jesus expects), we will start to do all sorts of crazy things like lend without thought of return and love the ones we are least likely to love.

Always with these kinds of things, I like to look for hidden meaning. As the inventor of the Dan Brown school of preaching, I wonder if there is some code I’m missing or some logical leap I might make as an aid to understanding. So here goes.

I did a bit of research on the term ‘walk a mile in someone’s shoes’ and I came up largely blank. There is no agreement on the source of this idiom, or even the intent of the saying. Some use it to defeat judgement (‘Don’t judge someone until...’) and others argue it is about empathy and having a common experience. It’s a mystery, to quote Harold.

But what if it’s simply a variation on ‘walking the extra mile’ found here in Matthew 5? Suddenly the idea of a common experience takes on new life, with the second mile a double dose of understanding the way of the one you walk with. And maybe the pack you are compelled to carry is not a bag of Roman laundry but the emotional burden the other person carries? In other words, you carry it and offer some momentary relief, not a quick fix or easy answers, but a willingness to share the burden, if for a few moments at least.

So we are back to Jesus command to ‘do the thing least expected.‘ We are surrounded by voices that say ‘put yourself first’ and ‘the only person you can count on is you.’ But Jesus says ‘walk the extra mile’ to truly understand each other, to support one another, and to truly share the load.

One of the most pernicious ideas to enter our world is the idea that we somehow attract success or failure, depending, of course, on the quality of our thinking. Maybe we were forced to walk the extra mile because we were sitting by the roadside thinking like a victim rather than a strong person who can stand up to Rome’s finest.

The problem with the so-called ‘law of attraction’ is that there is no room for empathy, only evaluation. When everyone is the author of their own situation, the natural tendency is to figure it out for them, and inform them of the result, as a favour, since they ought to know how they did it to themselves.

But Jesus says ‘walk a mile with them, and then walk an extra mile,’ and then decide if you can understand their burden. At that point, we usually can, since their experience is a little closer to being our experience, and for a little while at least, we faced it together. Amen.


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