What relationships have given shape to your identity? Stated more succinctly: Who has shaped you?
Many of us can point to a teacher who introduced us to our favorite subject or author. Many of us can recall a friend who recommended a style of music, or our favorite band. Sometimes to our chagrin, we’ll find ourselves sharing an opinion and then say, “O gosh, I sound just like my mother. She would have said that.” We are shaped, all of us, by our community, consciously and unconsciously.
In my previous gig, my old job, I worked for The Episcopal Church’s office for “Lifelong Formation.” I was the young adult and college-student specific minister, but I loved the name of the office “Lifelong formation.” No matter our age, or sense of maturity, we are, all of us, in formation. We have been formed. We continue to be formed.
So, how are you shaping up?
At the end of today’s Gospel, Jesus sets the bar pretty high. “Be perfect,” like God is perfect. A priest friend in Connecticut recently wrote that while perhaps Beyonce wakes up “feeling ‘flawless,’ most [of us] rise from bed a few minutes late, somewhat dehydrated, and in great need of a tissue. Certainly no one removes a sleep apnea mask to declare, “I woke up like this.” Perfection can seem unachievable.
I think part of the problem we have with this Gospel is a problem of translation. You see “perfect” in English misses part of the sense of the word in Greek, which is “telos.” If you’ve studied Aristotle, you’ve heard that word telos. It means perfection, yes, but it is more directional. To engage in seeking teleological perfection is to journey with purpose, to move toward a point at the horizon which is perfection. And according to Aristotle, in life, we don’t reach telos. Telos is the goal toward which we strive. Perfect, in this sense, is not the enemy of the good. Perfect is the direction toward which the good is shaped.
Thousands of years of doctrinal development away, it can be important to remember how MOST people experienced Jesus. Jesus was a preacher, a very talented preacher. His words, his phrases shaped people. His words, edited together by the Gospel writers, still shape people. And these weeks of Epiphany, we are spending time with the greatest sermon we have, the Sermon on the Mount. How do we preachers relate to our greatest Preacher?
In the great mosques each Friday, the Imam climbs the minbar, the pulpit to deliver a sermon. Traditionally Islamic pulpits, unlike our pulpit, have stair-steps that face out toward the people. The Friday preacher climbs several stairs and turns around to look out over the gathered crowd. In the mosque, the preacher traditionally stops one step short of the top. This reminds him, and the congregation, that every mosque’s primary preacher is not the person currently talking, but the prophet himself. The current preacher gives a sermon as a substitute. Formation belongs to the master.
With a similar sense of humility, I want to offer a couple of thoughts on Jesus’ words from today’s Gospel. Jesus turns his hearers’ expectations upside down. “You have heard an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, Do not resit an evildoer.” “You have heard it said…love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” These words may seem foolish in today’s climate, but this is the perfection toward which Christians have sought to be shaped. Still, reading Jesus’ words today can create a sense of tension
I want to look into this tension for just a moment. Formation is happening all the times and it can happen when we are tense. If you’ve ever climbed up a mountain to the edge of tree-line and seen the little bristly pine trees up high, you’ve seen tense formation in action. Pine trees that high up have raw bark on one side of their trunk and just a couple of branches pointing in one direction on the other. They look like little scraggly flag poles. Those sad trees have been blown into their shape by the wind. I bring them up because the winds seem mighty strong these days. Will you be shaped by incivility? Will you respond to hatred with hatred? Will you respond to mockery with mockery? Will you respond to cynicism with cynicism?
A few months ago I shared with you something I learned about Jesus’ words: “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” That line can seem pretty pathetic, weak, but I once heard an African theologian explain how she read strength in Jesus’ words. She said that to turn the other cheek you had to turn your whole face. “Turning the other cheek” means looking your assailant in the eye. It means facing hatred with humanity.
Jesus strikes a similar vein of wisdom with another oft-quoted line from this sermon: “go the extra mile.” You may have heard that one before. You might have seen the words on one of those black-bordered motivational posters that seem to hang in ever Human Resources Office maybe with a picture of running shoes. Well, these words belong to Jesus, and they are as surprisingly radical as anything he preached.
“Go the extra mile” referred to a specific policy in the Roman Empire. Rome learned this tactic from the Persia, an earlier empire with great territorial ambition. “If anyone forces you to go one mile” references the power that a Roman Soldier had over anyone who lived in territory conquered by Rome. The soldiers marched across the empire on Rome’s highways, and they carried heavy equipment. When a soldier got tired or didn’t like the look on someone’s face, by law, he could impress a bystander to carry his pack for up to one mile, but no more. All along the road there were mile markers to facilitate this service to the Empire.
In this context, Jesus’ words, “go also the second mile” would have shocked his hearers. This policy was hated, understandably, by the occupied people. Being forced to march away from your work, to spend precious time and energy for no pay, was humiliating. Why would Jesus want to make it worse? As a tactic for calling the system of oppression into question, Jesus’ idea has legs. Can you imagine the Roman soldier, looking at the tired farmer who he has just marched a mile away from his field, as the man sets off another mile down the road. “You don’t have to continue,” he might blurt. The oppressor is forced to see beyond his prejudices. The soldier is faced with another human being, someone who is paying him a kindness, and he has to ask questions about the legal and social framework empowering some at the expense of others.
“Go the extra mile” read this way reminds me of another preacher, who stood just a step below Jesus. I’ve seen Dr. King’s words, his commentary on Jesus’ message on many signs and t-shirts lately, maybe you’ve heard these words too:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
These days, I think we are having to become more conscious about the question: “who is shaping you?”
Who do you “friend” on Facebook? Who do you “follow” on Twitter? Who do you read? Who do you listen to? Who do you watch on television? In a political climate that seems to reward bragging lies and hate speech, in a social media world that rewards salacious rumors and outrageous headlines with more clicks and “likes,” it is easy to become blown about by the winds.
Question the value of that formation. If you find yourself anxious because of what you are reading in the paper, or on some blog site. if you find yourself angry in response to a news story on the radio, hit pause. Go and find some good news. Facebook won’t point you there. Twitter won’t raise these items up to the top of the feed. You’ll have to go and look.
Read some poetry. Pick up a collection of Dr. King’s sermons. Take the time to reconnect with a friend or spiritual advisor over the phone or better yet over a meal. Take a walk down in Tower Grove Park and keep an eye out for the owls. Look for good news. Open up the Bible. Go and find THE good news, the Gospel. Spend time with Jesus, the master preacher. If you’re on your smartphone clicking through articles and getting angry before you even get out of bed in the morning, well you’re already starting the day so many steps behind Beyonce. Get intentional about your formation.
A number of us gathered on Wednesday night as we continued our conversation about “Faith and Activism.” We read an article by Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest. His writing focus on the connection between political activism and contemplative prayer. Richard says, unless we are deeply formed, all our activism is likely to burn us out.
That’s one reason that most revolutions fail. Too many reformers self-destruct from within. For that very reason, I believe, Jesus and great spiritual teachers first emphasize transformation of consciousness and soul. Unless that happens, there is no lasting or grounded reform or revolution. When a subjugated people rise to power, they often become as controlling and dominating as their oppressors because the same demon of power has never been exorcised in them. We need less reformation and more transformation.
“Go the extra mile.” These words from Jesus ask us to question our operating assumptions. If you really want to “resist” systems of oppression, Jesus says, surprise the oppressors with persistence, with kindness, with service, with love. Be formed, deeply formed, by life-giving love.
This isn’t easy work. We won’t get there alone. Perfection isn’t a goal that any of us can reach on our own. To stretch in that direction we will need to be intentional about our formation. We will need solid communities who know how to support and challenge one another, communities like Holy Communion tries to be. We will need friendships. We will need worship. We will need to return again and again to Word and to Table. We will need the words of Jesus. To reach for perfection, we will need to ask: who is shaping me?