Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Monday, February 20, 2017

Out of the Box


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, Amen.

A few weeks ago, I watched this video going around Facebook, created by a Danish television channel. It begins by different groups of people walking into a room and each group standing in a separate box marked out on the floor. Everyone was looking around a little nervously when the voiceover to the video begins to narrate: “It’s easy to put people in boxes. There’s us. And there’s them.”

“The high earners. And those just getting by. Those we trust. And those we avoid. There’s the people new to the country. And those who have always been here. The people from the countryside. And those who have never seen a cow. The religious. And the confident. There are those we share something with. And those we don’t share something with.”

Next, someone with a clipboard steps forward to ask questions and invite people to come out of their boxes, sort of like a getting-to-know-you game I’ve played many times at camp. Suddenly these very different groups mingle and reform into new groups. They become groups of people who were the class clown, those who are stepparents, those who believe in life after death. Those who have been bullied, and those who have bullied others.  The video ends with every member of every group out of their boxes and gathered together as ONE GROUP, as all the people who love their country, Denmark. The video ends with this thought: “So maybe there’s more that brings us together than we think.”

One person’s reaction to this video was “we all have the same color blood.” Unfortunately, this is not the natural mode that we operate in. Walking down the street, seeing someone who looks differently or acts differently from us, our brains automatically jump to the easy and simple conclusions and puts that person in a box. As the video shows us, it’s much harder to remind ourselves of our common humanity.

It’s human to fear what we don’t understand. And it’s also very human to lash out when we feel that we or the people that we love have been hurt. Because the truth us, part of being human is that we WILL hurt one another, whether on purpose or by accident. 

In today’s word, Jesus might preach these words to us – “You have heard it said on many a bumper sticker ‘Don’t get mad, get even.’ But I say to you, ‘Love the people who have hurt you, and even pray for their well-being’.”

Tell me to do something – anything – else, Jesus. Anything but THAT. Tell me that God is on my side when people make me angry. Tell me to be kind to my enemies… once I have subdued them. Tell me to ask for extra forgiveness after I’ve exacted my revenge. Tell me to do anything at all to my enemies, except to love them. Because I DON’T WANT TO. 

Because deep down in my heart of hearts, if I am really honest with myself, I don’t think that my enemies deserve my love…. And I don’t think they deserve God’s love either. Because how can God love people “like that”?

We are not alone in this sentiment. The disciples must have listened to this part of the Sermon on the Mount with growing horror and outrage. Because on the surface it looks like giving in and giving up to their oppressive Roman overlords. Some of the disciples wanted to FIGHT, to set up a new political system here on earth with Jesus as the one in charge, to turn the tables on the Romans to drive them out.

What Jesus proposed seems like becoming a doormat. And that is not what Jesus is proposing at all. Jesus won’t FIGHT or take FLIGHT, but instead, shows us “a third way.” A way that breaks the mold and breaks the cycle of violence, and publicly exposes and names injustice. The way of non-violent resistance. Jesus shows his disciples how to assert their own dignity as beloved children of God and not allow themselves to be put in a box by others.

Jesus is absolutely NOT talking about domestic violence or abuse here. He is not leading a Christian marriage seminar. He is talking to a people who have been systematically oppressed by people in power, and those people in power have created laws and systems to keep their power in place by degrading the humanity of an entire people. In Jesus’ time, it was legal for a Roman soldier to conscript a Jewish man to carry his 60 pound bag of gear for one mile – and one mile only - when they were on the move. So, you know, they were at least nice about their oppression, or something, because there were punishments for soldiers who abused this rule. Imagine then, the reaction of a Roman soldier when a Jewish man kept going into a second mile, and the poor soldier is running after to get him to stop! Who is in control now?

Similarly, if someone struck you on the right cheek, that doesn’t mean they are left handed. That means that they hit you with the back of their hand, which was a kind of blow reserved for people who were considered beneath you – women, slaves, servants, children, anyone lower on the social strata. If you were to turn your face so that you could also be struck on the LEFT, they would be forced to use their palm, which was reserved for striking an equal. By turning your cheek, you are telling them that not only are you refusing to hit them back in revenge, at the same time you are forcing them to treat you as an equal, a fellow human being.

Sometimes turning the other cheek means leaving a relationship. Sometimes turning the other cheek means a police report and a restraining order. Sometimes turning the other cheek means getting out of a situation, because then you are acknowledging that you are human being with wants and needs, a human being that deserves to live a life that free from violence and fear. As we all do.

But Jesus - being Jesus - also flips the tables back on US. Just as we are called to refuse to stay in the boxes that others put us in, we are not to put other people in boxes, either. And according to Jesus, that means loving our enemies and praying for those who threaten us.
The enemies of Jesus’ disciples were pretty obvious and pretty brutal – the Roman government and those in power who colluded with them. In our time and place, I think the people who are truly our enemies are much less obvious, but just as powerful.

Our enemies are not our opposites, as many would like us to believe. Our world does not have to be about white verses black, men verses women verses transgendered people, gay verses straight, Christian verses Muslim. I happen to think that our true enemies right now are those who want us to view those people as our enemies. They want us to stay in our boxes, to fear those who are in other boxes, and to continue to operate out of hate and fear. But we all know, because we can see it on the news and all around us, that this keeps us stuck. Hate creates more hate, and fear creates more fear. It’s a cycle we can’t break by acting in the same way.

The Reverent Doctor Martin Luther King Jr, who was a champion of non-violent resistance during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, once said “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Love gets us out of the box, even though we would rather put that love back IN the box. But we all know what God does with boxes. When love had every dignity taken away, when love was violently murdered on a cross, when love was sealed a way in a dark tomb, when death thought it had won the day… Jesus broke out of that tomb, broke free from the chains of death, to show us that the darkness cannot and will not win.

Love is busting out of the tomb all over the place. Jesus calls us our boxes to see that there is “more that brings us together than we think.”

Just this last week, in the Los Angeles area nearly two hundred thousand people were told to evacuate because of a hole in a local dam. Sikh temples all over the area opened their buildings to give the evacuees shelter, food, and supplies, just five years after a tragic shooting happened in a Sikh Temple in my home state of Wisconsin. The Sikh community in California opened their doors to complete strangers, because they were in need. They had every reason to say no. But they said yes. “We all have the same color blood.”

 Love knows no bounds and destroys every box we try to create. Thanks be to God. AMEN. 

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