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Where Does it Hurt?

Rev. Daniel A Smith
Sun, Feb 24

Reading: Luke 6: 27-38

So I need to come clean about something before preaching about this famous cheek-turning text. My 17 year old daughter Nellie and I were horsing around this week and I ended up punching her harder than I should have. She, and Nancy and I were on vacation visiting our son Julian in California. At various points during the visit, Nellie and Jules would predictably regress into adorably, affectionate sibling play-fighting. It was their late-teen way of saying that they love and miss each other. It would often arise as poking or slapping in the backseat of our rental car. And it would sometimes spill into our sidewalk strolls when they’d decide to wrap me into the fun. A little elbow here. An occasional booty bump there. Occasionally it would escalate. Nancy and I would tell them to chill out and cool it, usually to no avail. Well, on our way to breakfast one day and in a moment of relative calm, the ever exuberant Nellie came up from behind me and surprised me with a full-on, ‘cheek’ to ‘cheek’, hip-check that almost knocked me to the ground. She had gleefully thrown every ounce of her tall, tough and athletic body into mine such that my lower back felt like a typewriter carriage getting swept clear off its keyboard. My verbal pleas to knock it off flew out of window and I “decided” to hit her back, not with a gentle love shove, mind you, but with a hard-pounding cross to her left bicep. She took it in stride, almost as a sign to keep-on playing only harder, but…she was as surprised as I was by the force of the punch. It was bad, and at some level we both knew it. I apologized immediately. She also apologized when she remembered that I’d recently thrown out my back. Fortunately, my back and her arm were fine and we quickly bounced back to our usual, slightly immature vacation selves. I apologized again later in the day and I told her l that if a cop had seen me do it, he probably would have, and should have(!), taken me right to the station.

Jesus says: “if anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other one.” I failed at this, miserably, and with a loved one no less, let alone a stranger or enemy. Now, having said all that, this turn-the-other-cheek passage is not what want I to focus on today. Instead, let’s turn our attention to verse 37 where Jesus offers another imperative to his followers. He says: “Do not judge.” In the context of a story like the one I just told, I wonder if these words feel like something of a hip-check to your good consciences. Do not judge? Really, Jesus? Would you just stand there, mouth shut, while a big guy wails on his daughter who is half his size? How can we not judge? I’d venture a guess that some of you may still be judging me for the story I just told. Its ok. I get it. I deserve it. Though I’m pretty sure Nellie shrugged it right off, what I did was shameful. But the question remains: How can we not judge especially in moments when we find ourselves thinking ‘Oh, I would never…’ or ‘Oh, I could never do that?”

A quick scan of recent headlines brings the point home all the more. Consider the still unfolding catastrophe of the abuse scandal at the highest levels of power in the Catholic and also in the Southern Baptist Church. Or the string of scandals in Maryland’s state house, including the Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General. Or what about Friday’s news about Patriot’s owner Robert Kraft’s shameful behaviors in Florida. The list goes on and on and that’s to say nothing of what the pending Mueller report may hold!

Do not judge? Do not condemn? These lines do not compute in our brains given how hard wired we are these days to call out injustice and indecency the moment we see it. If anything, some wonder if we’ve needed more mechanisms of judgement and accountability to shame the political corruption, corporate greed, racism, misogyny and carbon addiction clear out of our systems. If only.

Friends, the gospel does not get harder or more radical than this text. Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you. Walter Brueggeman calls these the four “abrasive imperatives!” To them we can add several related demands. Turn the other cheek. Give to everyone who begs. Do not judge. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Welcome to Jesus’s enigmatic “Sermon on the Plain!” I admit it took me longer than usual to figure out where to begin and how to unpack this one. It’s full of hard-hitting statements that are not playing. Our tendency is to either dodge their blows or surrender to their moral knockout because, after all, who can follow these commands, really?

The Sermon on the Plain is Luke’s lesser known and harder to hear version of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. We pick it up here about a third of the way through. The context is set a few verses before. Having just returned from a time of prayer on a mountain, verse 17 tells us: “ He came down with them, and stood on a level place with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea...” He first prays a series of beatitudes or blessings. Blessed are you are who are poor, who are hungry, who weep and who are persecuted. We know these mostly from Matthew’s version. But he then shifts to what are sometimes jokingly called the “woe-itudes!” But woe to you who are rich. Woe to you who are full. Woe to you who laugh. By the time we get to verse 27 where our passage picks up, Jesus levels with the crowd all the more about what it will take to follow him. “But I say to you who will listen...” and then comes the abrasive imperative punchlines.

I’m reminded here of the wise words of business management guru Peter Drucker. He once said: “the most important thing in communication is hearing what isn't said.” If we really want to be among those who will listen to Jesus, we should also try hearing what isn’t said. So let’s be clear. Jesus is not saying there is no place for righteous anger when we’ve been wronged by our enemies. He is not—I don’t believe— encouraging a passive, do-nothing response to violence or evil, nor he is suggesting that we perpetuate abusive relationships. He is not saying there is no place for self-defense when people seek to cause us harm. He is not saying there is no place for holding others accountable or no place for critical thinking. He is not saying there is no place for justice to be served.

Remember, Jesus is speaking here to a large and diverse crowd. He’s not speaking one-to-one with someone who has suffered a history of abuse, nor to a small group of survivors or victims of violence. Instead, he is teaching his disciples, the crowds and anyone who will really listen something profound about the individual- and world-transforming power of God’s grace. He is teaching that if we can open our ears and hearts wide enough to receive the light of God’s mercy and love, it will dissolve those powerful narratives and identities that can often hold us back. Our senses of our selves as only a victim or a perpetrator, as just a giver or a taker, as the judge or the one who is judged can and will fade away if, if, if we remember our deeper, truer identity and God’s story for us. If we remember that we are first and foremost a child of God, one who is deserving of loving kindness and compassion no matter what the circumstance.

Still, our minds are conditioned to want to push back on such radical ideas, to find the exceptions, to count ourselves as good as we conjure the worst possible enemies that even Jesus would struggle to love and not judge. And yet, remember too that it was from the cross of his own torture that he said “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do!” Ultimately, Jesus is here trying to train our attention not on the exceptions but on the rule of God’s mercy and love.

So, just how do we remember this depth of God’s mercy and love when we encounter evil, violence and shameful acts in our lives and world? How do we remember God’s love when we have such strong tendencies to nurse our resentments, to confirm our biases and judgements, and to self-righteously fire up our rage? How do we love everyone when we all have a seemingly psychic need for someone to play the role of antagonist in the daily drama of our lives?

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard may be helpful here. He once wrote: “But what, then, is love? Love is to presuppose love; to have love is to presuppose love in others; to be loving is to presuppose that others are loving.” Wow! Let me say that again. “To have love is to presuppose love in others; to be loving is to presuppose that others are loving.” Have we ever experienced this, perhaps in someone that is trying to build us up? In someone that has confidence in us before we’ve left the starting blocks? Some may know this in our families but what about sharing this presupposed love with neighbors, with co-workers, with bosses and teachers, with those who annoy us, with people we don’t know? Rather than pre-judging the worst of people, God’s love, according to Kierkegaard, seemingly invites us to pre-judge the best of them or at least to assume their capacity to be a loving person. As Bryan Stevenson would say: “Each us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” If we can presuppose love for someone and in someone, this can begin to change the nature of how we judge others and it certainly makes it harder to condemn another person.

Here’s another strategy and one that is less abstract. Montgomery bus boycott legend and civil rights activist Ruby Sales once shared a story that shaped her understanding of this radical, decidedly non-violent, and even non-judgmental love. She had been raised in the church in Georgia, in the ”religion of black folk,” as she would say. In an interview with Krista Tippet, she shared that “Religion, for me, growing up in Columbus, Georgia, was the ground that I stood on that positioned us to stand against the wind.” She also shared that she lost that one day in her late teens. She had heard one too many pre-meeting prayers. She said: “I slowly became a Marxist. I became a materialist. If it wasn’t economics, if it wasn’t race, then it didn’t exist.” But then it came back to her and she found her religion again one day while getting her hair done. “A defining moment for me happened when I was getting my locks washed, and my [hairdresser’s] daughter came in one morning, and she had been hustling all night. And she had sores on her body, and she was just in a state, drugs. So something said to me, “Ask her, ‘Where does it hurt?’” And I said, “Shelly, where does it hurt?” And just that simple question unleashed territory in her that she had never shared with her mother. And she talked about having experienced incest. She talked about all of the things that had happened to her as a child, and she literally shared the source of her pain. And I realized, in that moment, listening to her and talking with her, that I needed a larger way to do this work, rather than a Marxist, materialist analysis of the human condition.”

For Sales, this was the simple but deeply spiritual question that drew her back to her faith, that enabled her to find an inner strength and to fiercely live out the lyrics of the old civil rights anthem “I Love Everybody” even in the face of police chiefs who would raise their batons against her and her colleagues. Holding that simple “Where does it hurt?” question unleashed in her a way to access that non-judgmental, non-violent love for all, even as she stood against the harsh winds of discrimination and hateful demeaning violence.

I share this story because I hope it gives us something practical to hang onto the next time we encounter an enemy in our daily walks, including those demons within us. The next time we find ourselves tempted to judge ourselves or someone else, try asking: “Where does it hurt?” Where does it hurt inside of me? Where does it hurt inside of them? To those would-be demons of our daily headlines, try asking “where does it hurt?”

I’m pretty sure things bounced back so quickly for me and Nellie not only because we have a lot of practice at that presupposed love for one another, but also because I told her about the pain in my back. My sharing my pain allowed her to better understand my too-strong reaction such that she felt no need to label or judge me. If only it were so easy to recognize where it hurts in our enemies and in those who we would otherwise choose to judge. For knowing where it hurts invites compassion. Somehow knowing where it hurts reminds us, too, of another person’s capacity to love.

Somali-British poet Warsan Shire asks the same ‘where does it hurt?’ question in a poem she wrote in the immediate aftermath of the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks. It’s called:

“what they did yesterday afternoon:”
i’ve been praying,
and these are what my prayers look like;
dear god
i come from two countries
one is thirsty
the other is on fire
both need water.
later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?
it answered

Everyone, everywhere hurts somewhere. God knows this. Jesus in his divine wisdom knew this. Civil rights activists knew this as they sang “I Love Everybody!” To recall this is to tap into the abundant mercy of the Holy one who presupposes love for us and who can hold and shoulder with us our every hurt and burden.

At first glance, our passage makes no direct reference to hurt or pain. But if we listen again to what’s not being said, we can see it everywhere: the striking of a cheek, the prospect of being judged, the pain of being unforgiven, the heavy burden of holding a grudge. Seen in this light, It’s as if those abrasive imperatives are the flip side of a soft interrogative, one that can give us a more realistic starting point. Where does it hurt and how might God’s non-judgmental, non-violent, enemy-loving mercy bring the salve we all need? Seriously, could you set aside some time to be in this Love, pray in this Love, to meditate on this Love and see how it might transform the narratives that are hurting you or others?

A passage like ours for today can sometimes read like an impossible ethical to-do list. Let’s face it. It is that. But it is also a profound invitation for us to recognize that this is the way that God loves us and has compassion for all of our hurts. If we can practice this non-violent, non-judgmental, presupposing love for others, it unleashes a profoundly liberating new territory of connection, and even a profoundly liberating new identity for all of us. Children of God, each of us made to be loving and merciful, just as our parent God is loving and merciful. Presuppose that we are already this, that we can already be this mercy and love to others, and our judgments and clinging will be transformed into healing, generosity of spirit, and grace for ourselves and our world, right where it hurts. Amen.

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