Flattening False Privilege

Feb 24, 2019 by

Old Testament Reading:  Genesis 45:3-11,15

Gospel Reading:  Luke 6:27-38

Sermon by Bob Bond for Feb 24 2019.

 

You people (other than visitors) know me and my preaching pretty well.  You surely know I do a lot of work on tangents.  True to my nature, then, I’m going to come at today’s Gospel reading on a tangent.

This particular tangent has the ring of testimonial about it … a good old-time Baptist practice!

My practice (or discipline) of prayer, over Advent and Christmastime and Epiphany, was particularly rich and life-giving because – after decades of wrestling – I finally figured out, from the inside out, how (for me, at least) the phrase from the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”, [how it] works.  I want to share my insight.  Some of you will possibly wonder how it took me so long.  Some of you might find it helpful alongside your own wrestling.  Hopefully all of you can join in rejoicing this one soul has made some deepening and some advance.

You see, there is a list of people (across my decades a growing list of people) who have done me wrong.  I am fortunate that in my early years my family was caring and loving so I did not know wrong then.  But in my career, in my adult life within the church, and in the broader community, there have been people who have torn down what I built, erected barriers that shut me down, threatened me so I feared, or sidelined me and my future plans-and-goals.  I have spent some sleepless nights and fretful days, over the years, wrestling with one-dynamic-after-another from the overall list of wrongs.  No small part of the wrestling has been due to the call, from Jesus, that I am to forgive the players responsible.

Much of the time – if I’m honest with you and with God – my interest was to see those people pulled down themselves and left far behind in the dust, my own life put back on the track I had yearned for.

With eventually-growing insight, I came to the place where what stood in the way of me moving forward peaceably was the refusal of those people to acknowledge there was anything wrong in what they had done (in how they had behaved; in the damage they had perpetrated).  I came to the place where I could say, in my prayer, that if they owned up, if they confessed and asked forgiveness, I would be able to forgive.

The next advance was to discover things shifted, for me, when I started praying for these people (instead of against them).  I still couldn’t forgive, but I could long for them to be provided with awakenings about their world, their relationships, their power and the wreckage in their rear-view-mirrors.

And it was from this prayer that things really changed these past months.  Because I awakened to the fact that even if these people glanced in their rear-view-mirrors, they would not likely see me and the wreckage around me, because their focus (or, maybe better, their viewfinder) doesn’t include me, at least not-hardly-at-all.  My upset, my losses, my concerns are barely a blip on their screen.  And the reason I can know this was the prayerful recognition (the epiphany, the ‘aha moment’) that my own viewfinder looks at my own privilege in life and rarely looks ‘down’ (and I’m using that word intentionally in this context) [my viewfinder doesn’t look ‘down’] at all those events and lives upon which it is (in truth!) based.  When I go to the store and buy something, I look for the best deal and feel like that’s a good thing.  But: What when that best deal is founded on child labour in some terrible sweat shop half the world away?  Or when it’s founded on practices woefully destructive to the environment.  I’ll tell you “What?”:  it’s not usually front-and-centre in my viewfinder.  (At least not for very long.)  When I wake up in my comfortable bed beside my lovely wife, have my tasty breakfast in my pleasant kitchen and drive to work in my well-functioning car, all based on my middle-class income, resulting from education I could access and the good fortune of employment I could land, what with the privilege I simply have as a healthy white English-speaking male on top of the privilege of a safe healthy happy childhood, how much am I aware of the impoverished households all around me, the generational lack of access to safety, full health-care, education and good employment, entrenched in an economy and a political system benefitting a few to a great extent and me plus the entire middle class to a comfortable extent?  Those households want for me to own up to my part, do something transformative about it, and ask their forgiveness; the multitude of the world’s child labourers, the environmental degradations all over look for me to own up to my part, do something transformative about it, and ask their forgiveness; Christ directs me to turn to God and only pray for forgiveness recognizing the dynamic is in parallel with me forgiving those whose viewfinder is – just like mine – set too high to see the actual wreckage in their wake.

With this came a flood of forgiving.  Wow, what a lot of ‘soul space’ got opened up!

All of this functions as a tangent to today’s Gospel in this way:  The “Good News” Jesus teaches is about flattening privilege so that when we look in the viewfinder, everyone is there.  His profoundly direct way of saying this is that “love” isn’t reserved for folk whom we are comfortable holding alongside us and close, it is commanded for everyone, it is commanded even for the enemy whose rear-view mirror doesn’t include me.

Look at this with me, people:

The Gospel sentence begins, “If anyone strikes you on the cheek”.  Everyone in Jesus’ crowd has an immediate picture of the scene, seeing a slave before his master, or a tenant labourer before his lord.  And everyone knows how the slap goes … I suspect that most of you have heard this before:  In that society, the left hand is used for matters of toileting and the right hand for eating, work and interaction.  The slap is by the right hand and, since it is coming from one with power to an underling, it is a back-hand slap across the underling’s right cheek.  With that slap, the message has been delivered, the shaming done, and the humiliated one is to slink away.  Jesus suggests otherwise.  And it’s not some adrenaline charged counter-punch (leading to disastrous ends!).  It is to turn the left cheek.  The left cheek would have to be struck with an open right hand, but that is what one does to strike an equal, not an underling.  Now the aggressor is ‘on the spot’, confronted by one refusing to be so shamed, in fact claiming an equality.  What an awkward mess this is, because to hit out at that left cheek would be to admit equality and also clearly be a bully … bringing shame.  But not to hit out is to be shut down by the claim of equality.  In either case, the slapped one has surely put himself front-and-centre in the slapper’s viewfinder.  The playing field has – in that moment – been leveled.  We see both players without the distortions of privilege in our way.

The next Gospel phrase, “If anyone takes your coat”, instantly introduces another scene:  a Roman soldier cornering some poor fellow and extorting his coat, just because he could!  It would of course be a public act; and once again the aggressor has designs on asserting power and privilege.  Jesus suggests otherwise:  After handing over the coat, take off and surrender the shirt as well, thereby standing tall half-naked before this sword-bearing aggressor.  Shame is involved, but not nearly as much in the bared flesh as in the soldier’s abuse of power.  The victim was supposed to slink away, invisible, but is instead now front-and-centre in the soldier’s field of view.  In fact, in everyone’s field of view.  The playing field has – in that moment – been leveled.

These two examples are about facing upstream; Jesus’ teaching about responses to be made to those enacting higher privilege.  The next two examples turn downstream.  First, there are all these people along my path who identify that I have more of the world’s goods than they do.  Jesus says “give to every one that begs from you”.  Oh my!  If that’s not hard enough, he secondly says that if someone takes away belongings, don’t seek them back.  He amplifies, “If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. … [L]end, expecting nothing in return.”

I can point out that I get a whole lot more animated about the first two examples than these last two.  I grab hold of Jesus’ insightful brilliance (“turn the other cheek”, “give the shirt as well”) and wonder about translating these into all sorts of transactions that would confront and confound the powerful and privileged.  On the other hand, my generosity falls short of giving to every one that begs, giving it all away, though such radical giving is arguably nothing more than Jesus asked of himself and the first twelve who followed him.

But this self-awareness just tells me the strength with which all those ‘above’ me are holding onto their privilege and power as well … lo and behold!, it’s just like me with mine.  The thing that they, and I, are confronted with, by Jesus, is that there is a better way.  You can see how much it is better by looking upstream and recognizing all the resource unlocked / released / freed up for the common good when the privilege and power above is levelled out.  But people, we can also see how much it is better by looking downstream and actually holding in our fields of view (in our ‘viewfinders’) all that humanity we characteristically put out of sight just so-as not to be overwhelmed.  The children in Yemen; Myanmar’s Rohingya refugees; Sudan’s child soldiers; the child sweat-shop labourers all across the Eastern hemisphere; the caravan at USA’s southern border; the people of the neighbourhoods in Hamilton’s north-end whose life-statistics are akin to those of developing nations.  If we hold these in our field of view, we discover we are looking into the face of Christ the scape-goated one.  And then we are shamed like the soldier facing the shirtless extorted one and like the master before the left-cheek-presenting slapped slave.  But then, as well, we can see the logic and the necessity of this flattened playing field which is the kingdom of God:  no privilege except God’s privilege; no power but God’s power.

It is this flattened human playing field which we are to prophetically herald and enact by loving as Jesus commands: “love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. … Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.”  This is not natural!  Natural (for us) is the power-and-privilege game.  This is about undoing / deconstructing / re-writing the game.  It is a total political and economic make-over.

It is telling that studies about the quality of human life in the world’s developed nations, using multiple measures of health, longevity, safety, satisfaction and happiness, reveal two nations on top:  Sweden and Japan.  Canada comes half-way down the list.  The United States is at the bottom.  The correlating factor across all the different cultures and forms of governance is the spread in the citizenry’s privilege … the magnitude of the gap between the rich and the poor.  The flatter the plot, the higher the quality for everyone.   And, do not overlook this important further detail: the rich in America measure lower than the citizens of Sweden or Japan.  People, such ‘flattened privilege’ or – to say it positively as Jesus said it – ‘loving and lending and forgiving,’ this is humanity’s salvation.

Our role is to be leaven.  We follow one who with twelve others and their broader circle of women patrons and followers changed the world ever since: grains of leaven that leavened the loaf.  Whenever the slapped one turns the left cheek, the loaf is leavened.  Whenever the shirt is surrendered as well as the coat, the loaf is leavened.  Whenever one holding resource releases it for someone without, and counts it not (and here we cannot but recall Ray’s profound and powerful portrayal of “grace” from last week!), the loaf is leavened.  Whenever one forgives, I can surely report to you one’s internal loaf is leavened.

When and where we can align our individual efforts – as in the sponsoring of refugees, or storehouse-provision at Mission Services Hamilton, Wesley Urban Ministries, Phoenix Place and Micah House, or international aid through Canadian Baptist Ministries – we get shared communal experience of leavening.  When and where we can produce and get behind the Tommy Douglas’s and Martin Luther King Jr.’s of our world (to name just two Baptist examples), we actually see the moving of mountains that Jesus tells us is possible, or – to stick with the original metaphor – we watch as our society-as-a-whole shares in the sweet taste of leavened bread.

All from following Jesus and flattening humanity’s false privilege.  Oh God, let it be so!  Amen.

 

Prayer for Others

God in heaven, our encounters with Gospel (with Jesus) make it clear how our prayers for others are anchored in prayers for ourselves:

  • uncomfortable prayers, in that change, growth, and sacrifice are required for those others’ sakes; yet ultimately
  • life-saving prayers because to become bit by bit more like Jesus is to become what we are actually designed and meant to be.

God, Jesus’ brilliance is so inspiring as he directs us in ‘how to respond’

  • to the aggressor (turn the other cheek, give also your shirt, forgive!) and
  • to the disadvantaged (be gracious!).

Work within us as ‘disciples’ and ‘followers’ of Jesus’ Way, that we too might be brilliant in addressing the aggressors and the disadvantaged of our time and place.  Use our efforts as leaven.  Make us wise, gracious, bold, and altogether loving.

God, our world’s order is so distorted by privilege.  We pray for displaced people, enslaved people, impoverished people; for young lives in deprivation, old lives in brokenness and mid-lives in desperation.  We pray for the land, the water, the air, the species of plants and animals that are threatened and those already destroyed by humanity’s race for privilege.  The daily news tells us the impact of this ‘race’ here, and there, and everywhere.  So yes, God, use us as leaven.  We think of people in our immediate sphere, particularly those whom we sometimes wrongly filter out of our field of view, and we pray for them.  Let us follow Jesus (a) to bring good news to the poor, (b) to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, (c) to let the oppressed go free.

God, for the people we know who are sick, make us agents of healing.  For the people we know who are grieving, make us mediators of comfort.  For the people we know who are lonely, make us friends.  For the people we know who are in strife, make us instruments of peace.  We each bring to mind people from this fellowship, and people from the other spheres of our lives.  Let us be for them the love and grace of Jesus.

We pray in His name, and in Jesus’ words,

Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy Name.  Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread.  And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.  Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.  For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever and ever.  Amen.

Benediction

Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as God in heaven is merciful.

Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.

Go in grace.  Be God’s grace.

Amen.

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