A Soul Stretching Venture

Paula Northwood November 18, 2018

Scripture Luke 6:27–38

Our text today is part of the teachings from Jesus called the Sermon on the Plain. They are remarkably similar to the gospel of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Scholars debate whether they were different perspectives of the same event or the same sermon preached more than once. Either way the fact that they are repeated would indicate they are important words.

In modern parlance, this was Jesus’ TED talk. There is nothing more inspiring than a bold idea delivered by a great speaker. The folks who showed up to listen to Jesus were seekers. Discontented with their current predicaments, they came to hear from this man who was talking about a new way to live an authentic life.

Jesus was also talking about a culture change. Franciscan monk Richard Rohr writes about three kinds of culture today: political cultures based on manipulation of power, economic cultures based on manipulation of money, and religious cultures based on manipulation of some theory of God.[1] Jesus came announcing a radically different culture, a new social order, an alternative to the cultures of manipulation. This guiding vision, this new ethic, this alternative way of understanding the world is foundational to his teaching and preaching.

If we do a simple comparison of the culture Jesus’ puts forth to our current culture, what do we find?

Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hurt, bless those who curse you, and turn the other cheek.” Our culture says, “Demonize the other, build a wall, block those in need, jail and deport those who don’t belong!”

Jesus says, “If someone asks for your coat, give them your shirt, too; give to anyone who begs from you, do unto others what you would have them do to you.” Our culture says, “Freeloaders don’t deserve anything; don’t let anyone take advantage of you; don’t give to beggars because you know don’t know what they will do with the money—and do to others what they have done to you!”

Jesus says, “Be compassionate, don’t judge, don’t condemn, forgive and keep on giving.” Our culture says, “Consume, condemn, judge, carry a grudge, seek revenge and don’t be weak!”

I could go on but you get my point: This text is still relevant today. In the business world, we talk about venture capital. Venture capital is a form of financing that investors provide for small, early-stage, emerging projects that are deemed to have high growth potential. This Sermon on the Plain is about a soul stretching venture, a form of spiritual practice provided for Christians with high growth potential.

We are starting a series on generosity this month. I have been thinking about how generous the members of Plymouth have been over the years. We have been putting together statistics on our giving as a church as we prepare for the budget. In the last several years we averaged giving over 15 percent of our budget to outside groups in need. We have also given to the community by starting other organizations, many of which that we support financially: for example, Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative, Groveland Food Shelf, Pillsbury United, OneVillage Partners, and VocalEssence, to name just a few. We also host the Third Sunday Meal, the Strobel Drop-in Center, many recovery groups and a variety of theater troupes. Church members are generous in sharing their time through tutoring at Whittier School, delivering Meals on Wheels, building for Habitat for Humanity, volunteering at a number of nonprofits and serving through a variety of ways. You are very generous with your time and with your resources.

But if we examine this passage as a soul stretching venture, what do we see? Jesus is challenging his listeners to do more than what a sinner—an unbeliever—would do. Or to put it in cultural language, we might ask, “How are the actions of Christians different?” Secular culture can be good, loving and generous. If the invitation from Jesus is to be more radical, even countercultural, what does that look like? If we look to our text for clues, we find very high expectations for our behavior. I think this text expects that we will respond magnanimously with boundless generosity.

In the midst of a violent culture, Jesus promotes nonviolence and peace. Jesus’ concern for loving the enemy and turning the other cheek is a call to move from violent resistance to nonviolent resistance. If a person strikes you on the cheek, turn the other cheek. Have you ever felt the sting of a slap across the face? Not only does it hurt, it’s humiliating. It makes your eyes water. And we are supposed to offer the other side of the face? That just seems wrong!

The late theologian Walter Wink explains that a more accurate translation of this sentence is “do not retaliate against violence with violence” or “don’t react violently.” This subtle yet powerful shift in language sets a whole new tone for what follows: rather than being told not to resist, the people gathered to hear Jesus are told not to resist violently.

Scholars write a great deal about the significance of the slap on which cheek and with which hand and how cultural norms symbolize certain things. But the bottom line is that if you are hurt by injustice, you are to stand with dignity and confront the injustice with nonviolent resistance. Jesus’ instruction to turn the other cheek transforms from “just taking it on the cheek” to a bold nonviolent response—even more than just walking way, which is what most of us would do. Jesus is telling his followers to find creative, active and nonviolent ways to assert their humanity and be generous with God’s love. This is an example of being magnanimous. We are to take the higher road. This is why even our embroidery conversations are so important. We are working at ways to speak respectfully and courageously about difference and to listen to the ways we may take part in perpetuating injustice. We are not walking away from it but will find a creative, generous solution.

In the next part of the text, we have Jesus questioning how people love each other. Traditional piety says love your neighbor, love those who love and adore you. This kind of love is easy. This kind of love perpetuates inner circles and those on the outside of the circle. This ultimately alienating process keeps us inside our own ethnic group—and so racism continues. But Jesus says love people outside your circle. Love the folks who sleep on the church lawn. Love the stranger at the border. Love the one outside your comfort zone, the unknown, the other. Until you can do this, Jesus is saying you have not loved at all.

And if that’s not enough, Jesus tosses out those disturbing verses about giving to people who would take the coat off our backs our shirt, too. This is asking way too much! This is a good example of why we don’t want to take the Bible literally. But if we are going to take it seriously, this kind of sharing isn’t easy. It runs counter to most of the ways we have of trying to find happiness. We are bombarded every day with messages that tell us we deserve it all, we can have it all and we can have it now because we work hard and deserve it.

Most churches don’t like to talk about money. In my 15 years at Plymouth, I think I have only heard one stewardship sermon. If this church is going to continue to do great things, we will need to share our resources. According to a recent survey, of those now coming to a church at least once a month, as many as 37 percent give nothing at all. It reminds me of the minister who said, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is we have enough money to reach our budget goal this year.” A sigh of relief went through the congregation. The minister continued: “The bad news is the money is still in your pockets.”

According to this text, lack of generosity is a spiritual problem, and, until we approach it as such, we will not fully live it. If you notice, Jesus does not ask the listeners to believe in anything. There is no creed described or dogma to adopt, only a code of conduct. This is how we are to act. It’s called orthopraxy—correct behavior or practice—rather than orthodoxy, which is correct belief or opinion. It’s about how we conduct ourselves in the world. It is about practicing a spirit of generosity.

It’s easy for us to be cynical, especially in times like these. Cynicism comes easily . . . too easily. Cynicism takes no surrender, no trust, no love and no intelligence. It’s easy to dismiss whatever does not work for us right now, especially if we think life is all about us. But Jesus is inviting his listeners to a soul stretching venture. He is inviting them to put their trust in the God of generosity. Jesus offers a more spacious, generous world, an alternative world where we do not have to explain it, or fix it, or control it; it’s a world where, if we are willing, we can allow a larger Mystery to work itself out through us and in us. The invitation is to practice boundless generosity in all of our relationships: in our families, in our church and in the world. Are we up for the challenge? I hope so! Amen.

[1]Richard Rohr, Jesus’ Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1996), 3.