Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Building Walls or Building Bridges - Luke 6:20-31

Luke 6:20-31

20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
    for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you[a] on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have received your consolation.
25 “Woe to you who are full now,
    for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
    for you will mourn and weep.
26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

27 “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

A couple of years ago, Tom Hanks played in a movie named “Bridge of Spies,” which was based on the book by the same name. 

The name of the movie, and of the book on which is was based, comes from the fact that much of the story takes place during 1957 through 1962 when the Cold War was just starting between the Soviet Union and the United States.

The Soviets were building a wall – a great wall that divided the city of Berlin in what was, at that time, East Germany and West Germany.  Tom Hanks played the part of James Donovan, who had to go to Berlin to negotiate a prisoner exchange.  He arrived just as that Berlin Wall was being constructed. 
The climax of the story was when Donovan was there for a prisoner exchange in which Americans and Soviets trade prisoners.  The exchange was on a bridge, hence the name, “Bridge of Spies.”

This, of course, comes at the end of the movie, but at the beginning the story began with the arrest of a Soviet spy in New York

James Donovan, an insurance lawyer who was asked by his law firm to defend the spy in a court of law so that it would give the appearance to the world that this man was getting a fair trial.  The word “appearance” was used over and over, revealing that the appearance of American justice is more than the actual practice of American justice.

No one was really interested in true justice.  They have a spy.  Caught the Red red-handed.  There was no question of the guilt so the trial was just a formality.  Even the judge had already made up his mind about spy’s guilt. 
Donovan did his best to put up a good defense, but he predictably lost the case. 

Between the conviction and the sentencing, Donovan tried to convince the judge to spare the life of the spy on the grounds that it might be a good insurance policy.   Someday one of our spies might be captured and we need to keep this guy alive because we might be able to use him in an exchange for one of our guys.

The judge scoffed at the idea that the Soviets would ever succeed in capturing an American spy.

So the lawyer took another approach.  Humanitarian reasons.
Donovan argued that how we treat the Russian spy is important and America needed to consider how we would want “our guys” to be treated by the Russians.

In other words, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
And that is what convinced the judge to grant a 30 year sentence instead of an execution.

Eventually, that became a good decision by the judge, because that Soviet spy is exchanged for an American spy – and those of you who were alive in 1962 or who enjoy history will remember U2 pilot Frances Gary Powers, who had been shot down over the Soviet Union, being freed in a prisoner exchange.

But when the judge announced the decision, the courtroom was full of those who could not see the eventual wisdom.  When the judge announced a 30 year sentence, the courtroom broke out in pandemonium.  One of the spectators stood and yelled out over and over, “In the name of God, why?  He’s a spy.  Kill him.  In the name of God, kill him.”

It is easy to want revenge when we are hurt or attacked or taken advantage of or abused.

For many years Donald Trump has written a lot about how to be successful in business.  Time and again in various speeches he has advocated revenge as the best policy.  In one speech he said, “One of the things you should do in order to succeed in business is to get even: If somebody hits you, you've got to hit 'em back five times harder than they ever thought possible. You've got to get even. Get even.”

Mayor Rudy Giuliani was the mayor of New York City when terrorists flew jets into the twin towers of the World Trade Center.  The entire nation was stunned and wanted justice.  More than justice, many of us wanted revenge.  Giuliani spoke very honestly at the time when he said, “Revenge is not a noble sentiment, but it is a human one.”

In the Old Testament Moses established the rule of “An eye for an eye.”
It was a radical step forward at the time, because until then the law was “you poke out my eye, I’ll poke out BOTH of yours.” 

Moses came along and established an equitable justice. 

As Moses put it, “you shall give life for life,  eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”  (Exodus 21:23-25)

Centuries later Jesus took justice one step further.

Treat people the way you want to be treated.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also … I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Over in Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus delivers the Sermon on the Mount, he gives some direction on how to love your enemy. 

You do it by treating everyone as you would want to be treated.

Everyone knows that phrase.  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” 

It is the Golden Rule.

It is one of the central teachings of Jesus Christ.

There is an old story that has been around for decades.  It is told as a joke that is both a preacher joke and an astronomy joke.  And since I am both an astronomer AND a preacher, it is perfect for me.

The story is this.

Rev. George Buttrick was a renowned preacher in the mid-20th century.  After attending a conference he boarded a plane and was on his way home, and during the flight he began to work on his sermon.  The person seated next to him was curious and asked Buttrick was he was doing.  He told him he was a preacher and was working on the sermon for Sunday.

The seatmate said, “Oh, yeah, religion. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ is all the religion I need.”

Buttrick asked the man what he did; he replied that he was an astronomer. Buttrick said, “Oh yeah, stars. ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ is all the astronomy I need. ”

Now the humor of that story is that religion, like the science of astronomy, is deep.  These are not simple subjects.  Religion is hard.  You can’t just take one line and go with that.  Following Jesus is difficult.

The difficulty I have with that joke is that as I hear it I believe that there is nothing more complex, nothing more difficult, nothing more challenging than that one liner - “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

It is a challenge we have every day of our lives, day by day, and perhaps even hour by hour.

Someone cuts you off on the highway, of course you want to cut them off.  But wait a minute, “do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.”

You go home after a hard day’s work and your wife or husband or child or parent says something to you and it cuts at your soul and it sets you off and you feel the anger rising.  And a snappy, hurtful response is right on the tip of your tongue.  But wait a minute, “do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.”

A colleague at work takes advantage of you.  It is a big deal – for whatever reason.  Maybe you missed a promotion, or lost a raise, or even got fired.  You ponder how to get revenge.  Someone has hurt you so you’ve got to hurt them back.  Five times harder than they ever thought possible.  You’ve got to get even.  Get even.  But wait a minute, “do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.”

Giuliani said that revenge is not noble, but it is human.  But our human nature toward revenge is not productive.  In fact, it is counter productive.
Revenge gives birth to an endless cycle of retribution.
Now, we are not talking about justice here.  We are talking about revenge.
Justice is a matter of law and courts and right and wrong, but revenge is just a motivation of anger and violence and hatred.
Justice can provide satisfaction.
Revenge and getting even?  They never provide satisfaction – they just produce more hunger.
Bud Welch had to struggle with his rage and desire for retribution after his daughter Julie was killed in 1995.
After her death, he didn’t want justice.  He wanted revenge.  Eye for eye, life for life.
Then, one day, the killer was executed. 
And nothing changed.
His daughter did not come back from the dead.  His drinking became more and more destructive.  Sleep evaded him.
Getting even did not make things ---- even.  Life was still out of balance. He found healing, but not through revenge.
Anne Lamont once said that revenge and getting even is like a man who drinks rat poison and then waits, expecting the rats to die.
Against this human nature of revenge and getting even and hurting those who hurt you Jesus stands up and says, “Folks, you have to learn how to treat others.  You treat them the way YOU want to be treated.”

Don’t treat others the way they deserve to be treated.  Treat them the way you want them to treat you.
Jesus is teaching us to do something positive and creative and productive.
Other religions have their equivalent of the Golden Rule, but they express it negatively.
The Hindu teachers say, “do nothing to others which if done to you would cause you pain.” (Mahabharata, 5:1517)
The Buddhist religion teaches, “Hurt not others with that which pains yourself.” (Udanavarga 5:18)
The Jewish traditions and the Talmud teach, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others.” (Shabbat 31a)
These are negative statements – they teach we should NOT do something bad to a person.
Jesus took this a step further. 
It is not just avoiding doing bad things to others.  It is actively doing something good to others.
“Do to others, what you would have them do to you.”
You see the difference?
In other words, when you are cut off in traffic, it is more than just NOT cutting them off as well – it is doing something active:  It’s letting others merge in your lane. 
And at home when someone in the family says something hurtful – it is more than just holding your tongue, it is responding with a kind word of love.
It is human nature to get revenge, hurt the one who hurts us.  Human nature.  But all that does is build walls, with each side adding one brick after another, and another. 

Sometimes we are asked to tear down the walls that divide us, and build bridges instead.

Treating others the way you want them to treat you – that is how we build bridges.  That is how we live the Christian life of love.

 Copyright 2016. 
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved

Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.