February 24, 2019
So, last week, I warned you. I told you that even though Jesus was building up quite a head of steam, healing and teaching and praying his way across the countryside, things are going to get tough. We began to see that last week when he confused the heck out of the disciples and the crowds. You’re blessed if you are broke? You’re blessed if you are broken hearted with grief? You’re blessed if the authorities are hot on your trail? That had to set a few heads spinning. If I’m a good person, if I’m on “God’s team,” then good things should come my way, right? I do the right thing and God gives me a little, “somethin, somethin,” back right?
Wrong! It’s not that there won’t be good times. It’s not that everything’s going to be all bad and hard and tough. No…the problem is that Jesus is trying to jar people out of thinking that good fortune equals God’s love. In fact, Jesus goes out of his way, it seems, to say that sometimes the hard things that come our way give us perspective. Hard times may show me how little I really need. A broken heart may show me how precious time with those we love really is. Having to stand my ground and suffer for what is right may be how I learn what real integrity looks and feels like. That lesson may allow me to recognize such integrity in others. Jesus is leading the crowd and the disciples into a radically different way of seeing and understanding this life and a radically different way of understanding God’s place in this world. After all…wouldn’t it be a waste if what Jesus revealed was that we should just keep doing what we’ve been doing all along?
So, the question that is always there in life is whether we really want to know the truth. I think it is very easy to live a pretty lazy life and just accept the assumptions that we have been given and then sort our way through the world, looking for evidence that confirms what we already believe. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is currently the great American national past time. It is so easy to isolate ourselves from everything and everyone who might challenge what we are sure that we know—just turn the channel; just put a little care into the selection of your next read; just never allow yourself to be in the company of someone who is truly different.
If you mess up and someone says something that challenges your understanding of yourself and the world, don’t allow yourself to get that queasy, disoriented feeling or to think to yourself, “What if I’m wrong?” Instead, practice a little good old American denial. If that doesn’t work, attack the person. If that doesn’t work, walk away or change the channel or yell and drown that person out. In the end, it is really hard work to change and grow and think differently and make different choices. However, this is the hard work that Jesus demands that we do.
I’ve told the story before of the time when I ended up in a small group in a group dynamics conference. Every other person in the group was female. As soon as I walked in, they all began to talk about how at some level my presence in that group made things feel less safe. I was big and male and white. Almost everyone in that group had suffered bad experiences with big white guys. My first response was, “That’s not fair!” What they helped me understand is that it wasn’t fair but it was true. I could choose to hear what they were saying and learn how to be a less menacing presence or I could pretend they were crazy and just keep not understanding similar reactions that would come up from folks who feared people like me. I needed to hear the truth of their experience and allow that truth to change me.
Jesus says to those who are gathered, “To you who are ready for the truth…” (At which point, all movie fans should have an image of Jack Nicholson screaming at Tom Cruise: “You can’t handle the truth!”) Jesus says, in essence, if you can handle the truth, then here it is: “Love your enemies.” Boy, you talk about crossing the line, right? It would be enough if Jesus said, “Love your wife or your husband.” Maybe we could give an honest answer and say, “I’m trying!” We could wish that what Jesus said was, “Love your children.” Maybe we could say, “Would you settle for more often than not?” Or maybe we could negotiate, “Which one?” If Jesus said, “Love your neighbor—you know the ones you barbecue with during the summer,” maybe we could go with that. But, Jesus…come on… “Love your enemies? Really?”
Jesus makes no bones about it. He tells us to let our enemies bring out the best in us. Everyone who has ever played a sport knows that nothing raises your game like a really great opponent, right? Only that’s not what Jesus is talking about here. Sure Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier made each other better boxers but they did it by trying to destroy one another, blow after blow. Jesus says that when someone gives you a hard time, you should pray for them. When someone hits you, don’t hit back. If someone tries to grab your shirt, give them your coat. In other words, don’t give anyone else the power to make your choices for you. Sure people can and will say mean things and do mean things. However, you have a choice when they do those things to not become like them. In fact, freedom and integrity and faith are all on the line not when they make their choices but when you make yours.
Now, this only gets us part way to the truth but even this part is tough. Can you turn a deaf ear to someone else’s threats? Can you take a punch? Can you have enough perspective on how little stuff matters in this life that when someone else tries to take your stuff, you’ll offer them more? Are you capable in Jesus’ words of “living generously?” Or, are you going to walk through the world, withholding your care and compassion and love until your most stingy self finally agrees to cough up a kind word or two or are you going to love your way though this life like it is going out of style?
Live generously. I’ll give you an example. A friend of mine grew up in serious poverty. She made it out of that life and became a physician. At one point, she realized that she had lost her check book. She checked on her account and saw that checks were being written. However, the only checks that were written were at grocery stores. This person was buying food with her money which, my friend decided was ok. She didn’t close the account or set the police on the person’s heels. She made the mind-blowingly generous choice to let the person keep writing the remaining checks, all of which continued to only be used for food. That, my friends was a generous choice. She figured the person was in need when the rest of us would have called the person a thief.
On my vacation, I was reading the story of another occasion of the power of living generously, of responding lovingly to a world that is often simply unkind. The main character in the true story is a man named Derek Black. Like all the rest of us, he didn’t pick his family. He was just born into a particular family which is a dice roll for all of us. Some of us get lucky and are loved in great ways. For some of us…well the story is just more complicated.
Derek Black’s father was the imperial wizard of the KKK and the founder of the white nationalist website called “Stormfront.” His Godfather was David Duke, another grand something or other with the Klan—the guy who nearly became the governor of Louisiana. Derek Black’s family loved him. They had friends. They went away together but where they went were to white nationalist conferences. This was his normal world. These were his “default settings” in life.
Derek Black as he began to grow up became a rising star in the white nationalist movement himself, smoothing out the rough edges and making the movement more palatable to the masses. He hosted a radio show. He became a speaker at the conferences. He was the next generation who was going to save white America from all its perceived threats.
The only problem was that Derek Black went to college. The first person he met was a fellow student from Peru. In the first few days, one of his first good friends turned out to be Jewish. It wasn’t like he hid who he was or that his views changed overnight. It was just sort of shocking to him that all of these students from all these different non-white backgrounds didn’t feel like the enemy.
Eventually, someone on campus discovers who he is and spreads the word on social media. Derek stood for and expressed the kind of hate through which so many of those students had suffered. Some students thought he should be expelled immediately. Everyone was shocked that the quiet guy who wore the cowboy hat and sang and played his guitar was this hateful voice.
Here is the incredibly generous thing that one student did, though. No one had more reason to hate Derek Black than someone who was Jewish. And yet, one of Derek’s Jewish friends thought about it and decided to invite him to Friday night Shabbat services. Not everyone liked this. Some people who came to the services quit coming. However, Derek came. Derek was invited, week after week. The conversation continued. People sat with people and in the course of that connection, assumptions and beliefs and choices were changed
.Derek Black is now one of the leading voices speaking out against the white nationalist movement, pointing out how those once fringe views have been mainstreamed into our culture. Someone chose not to hate him back. He chose not to hate which pretty much cost him his connections to his family. Lives were changed when the “tit-for-tat,” fear based, reactive way of being in this world gave way for something more generous, and something more true.
“Live generously…Giving not getting, is the way. Generosity begets generosity.”