a sermon for the seventh Sunday after the Epiphany [Year C]
Luke 6:27-36, and 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50, and Genesis 45:3-11, 15
Peas go in on President’s Day. I can thank Chris Crouch for that bit of gardening wisdom. She’s one of our team leaders for the Epiphany Community Garden, and she knows a lot about how to grow things. I’ve followed Chris’ advice for planting peas with great success, and yet each year it gets harder to believe it. For one thing, Presidents Day is still really cold. There are nights below freezing and even if we get a warm spell I know there will still be snow and ice at some point. When I dig around in the soil this time of year it seems barren and sterile and empty of anything that can harbor life. And the peas themselves look like—well, like peas—fragile little things you could just boil and eat. They’re little green test balloons scouting out the possibility of spring, but instead of going up they get buried and never seen again.
I guess what I’m saying is that it is so difficult to stand there all bundled up on a chilly February day, fingers frozen, and hold these tender seeds in your hand, place them into the cold sod and have any idea of what it’s going to look like in three months. Even though I have a degree in biochemistry and understand the science of it all, and even though I have done it before, it taxes every bit of my imagination. It taxes my imagination because what is going in the soil on a cold February day, of all days, looks absolutely nothing like what will be growing there on a warm May day. It’s like trying to imagine a dry, sunny Richmond at this point. Or trying to imagine I’ll ever walk through my front yard without triggering my childhood fear of quicksand.
It wasn’t peas on Presidents Day, but that’s basically image that the apostle Paul uses to talk to the Corinthian church about the new life of Jesus’ resurrection. There appears to be some misunderstanding in the church about what kind of life the dead will receive when all are raised like Jesus was raised on Easter. Paul seems to say that just as you can’t look at a grain of wheat and deduce from it what it will look like once it’s planted and growing, neither can we deduce completely what it and feel like and be like when we and everyone is raised from the dead, a mission God started with Jesus.
And that’s because we’re all standing here in the cold, icy, Februarys of our lives, with its cancer diagnoses, and our race problems that won’t go away, and our substance abuse disorders. We feel our potential, we trust God loves us, but we can’t really grasp intellectually or visually what Jesus’ new life for us will entail when all this perishable stuff has gone, even us. That will be a spiritual life, Paul says, and right now we’ve got mainly a physical one. Our bodies and the creation that surrounds us are of dust, but Jesus is now a man of heaven (eternity) and because he has claimed us and we bear his image that eternal life awaits us. Furthermore, as Paul tries to say to them, just because it’s impossible for us to imagine it doesn’t mean that glory won’t come to pass. You can still have faith in what God will bring about.
I imagine that’s what Joseph needed to hear when he was in the bottom of that pit his brothers made for him as they sold him into slavery in Egypt. As he lay down there in the waterless pit, dirty, scared, as he was led by a caravan of human traffickers into servitude in a foreign land, there is no way that Joseph could have imagined that one day he would not only see his jealous brothers again but be reconciled to them.
Even as we read the story of Joseph as it’s told in Genesis, it’s difficult to predict how it’s all going to turn out—that one day he’ll find his way promoted to the top of Pharaoh’s chain of command—that one day Joseph will control the food distribution for the greatest empire on the planet. And that one day his own rapscallion brothers would approach him looking for food and protection.
The scene where Joseph is reunited with his family and where his identity is revealed is one of the sweetest in all of Scripture. Instead of seeing them as old enemies, figuring out a way to seek revenge, Joseph sees a chance to extend forgiveness. Instead of easily keeping them at a distance, turning his back and pretending he doesn’t know them, Joseph says, “Come closer. It’s your bro!” Instead of using their meeting as a way to pay them back with evil, Joseph is kind and loving. Unpredictably, Joseph is able to see that even though they in their treachery handed him a cold, lifeless February, God was able to raise him up to newness and life. But I bet in the bottom of that pit that day he never thought that.
God makes all things new. We worship here at the foot of the cross every Sunday to be reminded of that. We gather to eat around a table where our leader was betrayed just as Joseph was to remember that God’s core nature, God’s basic operating system, God’s chief objective is to bring about unimaginable new life. It is to take the things we consider losses and find a way to make them gains. It is to take the relationships we know are broken and to make them whole again. It is to hold our shriveled potential in his hand and help it die so that something new can come of it. That is what God is about at all times because God’s love for us is so great.
With faith in that kind of God in mind, Jesus looks out at the crowd of disciples and others gathered around him and gives them a description of a new world they can’t imagine. It is a world where enemies are loved instead of hated. It is a world where they will do good to those who hate them. It is a world where people bless those who curse them and abuse them. It’s truly a new creation where all the old ways of dealing with hurt and evil have died and all the typical boundaries of who deserves what are erased.
Instead, Jesus says, we put an end to ways of domination and humiliation by turning them on their heads. And Jesus gives very specific examples of how to do this, one that involves turning the other cheek and another that has to do with giving your inner garment when someone has already taken your outer one. Some Bible historians who have studied those two tactics, in particular, have suggested that they aren’t simply examples of rolling over in passiveness but are actually early non-violent activist techniques. That is, by turning your cheek after they’ve struck you to put you down like a slave with the back of their hand, you force them to hit you full on with their fist and thus force them to declare you’re an equal to them. And if someone takes your coat, you strip down to nothing so that your nakedness shames them and points out to everyone how far they’ve gone.
It’s kind of like some advice I got from my father one after I had been accosted and insulted by a fellow student. This person had laid into me quite inappropriately and with no ground to stand on. They had demeaned me and tried to make me feel stupid. My dad said that the best way to respond in situations where people are yelling and accusing you is just to be silent. Resist the urge to defend yourself or yell back in the moment. Just let their abuse fly and not open your mouth. That way, when they have a chance to replay the situation in their mind later on, which they no doubt will, all they’ll have to reflect on is their own ugly words, not anything you’ve said. Thankfully I haven’t had many chances to put that advice into practice (mainly because I’m too slow to think of anything on my feet anyway) but when I have I found it’s pretty successful.
One person in our congregation who has experienced great grief posted a thoughtful article on her page this week about how everyone around us is “experiencing the collateral damage of living.” It was a call to follow Jesus’ words even when it’s difficult and treat everyone mercifully because we never know what they’re feeling, even those we might label as enemies. It was a call to treat others the way we want to be treated, not according to the feelings their actions provoke in us in that moment or in a way that will give us an immediate advantage.
On a much grander scale, the strategies of love and mercy and “turning the other cheek” were what advanced the civil rights movement in this country. I am not an expert on these matters, but from what I understand a strong argument can be made that all of the lasting progress this country has in race relations over the past two centuries is due to the fact that people of color have often been outstanding models of love and forgiveness to their white oppressors. The use of nonviolent demonstration in effect held up a mirror to society so that many people with power could eventually see themselves as cruel and abusive and ugly and the cycles of humiliation could stop. Pioneers like womanist theologian Katie Geneva Cannon, who just died this past August here in Richmond, have given people like me a chance to hear stories of faith and perseverance from people who were traditionally at the bottom of society’s structure in their own words. That has been empowering.
Whether it is the sibling rivalry that infests Joseph’s relationships with his brothers or the ways in which our current culture is so bent on seeing the worst in each other, calling people out and confessing their sins for them, Jesus wants his followers to understand that the ways of violence and humiliation in the world are part of the perishable things that won’t last. There is a new world we are living into. It’s going to tax our imagination, but he believes we can do it. In fact, he is willing to die himself in order to show them his love and faith in us, to hold up a mirror to our ugliness so that we can see it. This world of loving enemies and being merciful to all is the world Jesus knows we can bring about when he lives within us, when the Holy Spirit is free to raise people up into this new life.
Because many days, the world is going to stand there in its February, or March, or October—it doesn’t matter because it’s all the same with everyone rushing to judgment and suspecting the worst in each other—the world is going to stand there, dukes up, expressing outrage at the drop of a hat, painting everyone into some tribe, stuck in a cycle of mistrust and violence, and they’ll wonder if things could ever be different. They’ll try to imagine if things could ever be beautiful and kind. They’ll get on the news and lament things, wish this and that could be great again, and on those days they’re going to look at you, the blessed, you with the bread in your hand and the wine of mercy on your lips. They’re going to look at you, as you stop to listen and not condemn. They’re going to see you in your gentleness and patience even with the people who laugh at you. They’re going to see you hoping for the imperishable in a world of perishable, loading quilts on a rainy Saturday morning into a van to go to the other side of the world, not expecting them to send anything back in return. They’re going to see you singing praises at the foot of a cross. And you know what’s going to happen?
They’re going to get a glimpse of what it’s going to be like in the spring.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.