You Who Listen

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scripture: Luke 6:27-38, Genesis 45:3-11, 15

Do you ever get into a conversation with somebody and after a little while your mind starts to wander? That happens to me more than I like, and after a time I find that I don’t quite know what’s going on in the conversation anymore. Either the other person will ask me a question and I have no idea what they’ve been talking about or something will click and I realize that I haven’t really been listening to the other person. I’ve heard them maybe, in the sense that I’m aware that they’ve been talking, but I haven’t really been listening.

There’s a difference between hearing and listening. A dictionary definition for hearing is “to perceive or apprehend by the ear.” Hearing means that your ear has picked up a sound that has been made somewhere. Listening is “to hear something with thoughtful attention; to give consideration.” If you’re talking to me and I’ve tuned out, then I’m hearing you. The sound waves are still going in my ear and striking my eardrum. I’m just not listening. I’m not paying thoughtful attention to you. Julia says this happens more often for me than it should.

The Bible recognizes this difference. Revelation 3:22 says, “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” Those of you who can hear, who can apprehend sound, listen – pay attention – to what the Spirit is saying. Jesus draws the distinction himself a few times. For instance in Mark 4:23 Jesus says, “Let anyone who has ears to hear listen!” There’s a difference between hearing and listening.

I think our Gospel reading from Luke today is one that a lot of people hear, but that not a lot listen to. I get it. Jesus is asking us to do hard things in this passage. That’s not a surprise. Jesus asks us to do hard things lots of places. I think this one, though, is one where a lot of us struggle.

One of the other readings for today is the end of the story of Joseph from Genesis chapter 45. You probably remember the whole story – Joseph is his father’s favorite, and to symbolize that favor Joseph received a beautiful coat from his father. Joseph’s brothers were jealous and threw him into a pit, and intended to kill him. Later instead of being killed Joseph was sold into slavery.

It’s a long and fascinating story, but eventually Joseph ends up in Egypt as Pharaoh’s right-hand man. There’s a famine and Joseph’s brothers, who tried to kill him, end up in front of Joseph begging for food.

Joseph reveals who he is, forgives them, and he tells them to bring his father to Egypt as well and he will see that they are taken care of until the famine is over.

I think that’s one of the best examples of loving your enemy that I know. There are a couple of things that make it powerful to me. First is that in this case, Joseph’s enemies were his family members. I guess you could think that would make it easier to love them because he knew them and was connected to them by blood. I think that would have made it harder to love, harder to forgive. There’s a sense of betrayal there that you don’t get with someone who isn’t part of your family.

It’s also powerful because Joseph actually has the means to do harm to his brothers. He could really take his revenge if he wanted to. I’ve been hurt by people who I’ll never see again. Forgiving them doesn’t make a lot of difference to them one way or another; it’s more something that I need to do to be at peace with myself. But would I be able to forgive them if I could hurt them as they hurt me? Could I let it go if I had the ability to cause the same levels of worry, of stress, of fear, that they caused for me? I think so, I hope so, but to be honest I don’t know because I’m not in that position. The people who I might consider my enemies aren’t kneeling before me in fear of their lives and hoping I will allow them food to survive.

This whole passage is hard because it’s hard to know how to apply it sometimes. It’s easy for me to say that I should love my enemies but it’s hard to know how to do that in every situation. What about turning the other cheek?

That one is interesting. Matthew records it a little differently than Luke does. In Matthew 5:39b, Jesus says “If anyone wants to strike you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” That’s a difference that matters.

The Old Testament scholar Walter Wink talks about how in Jesus’ day Jews only used the left hand for unclean tasks. It was tough to grow up a left handed Jewish kid. Most people are right handed naturally, and Jews would have been especially careful to use the right hand. Even gesturing with the left hand was wrong.

So if I am right handed and I am going to strike you on your right cheek that means I’m going to backhand slap you. If I were to hit the left I could make an open-hand slap or I could use a fist, but to strike the right cheek almost requires a backhanded slap.

Let me quote Wink himself from his book “Beyond Just War and Pacifism: Jesus’ Nonviolent Way.”

The intention is clearly not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her place. A backhand slap was the usual way of admonishing inferiors. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews. We have here a set of unequal relations, in each of which retaliation would be suicidal. The only normal response would be cowering submission. Part of the confusion surrounding these sayings arises from the failure to ask who Jesus’ audience was. In all three of the examples in Matt. 5:39b-41, Jesus’ listeners are not those who strike, initiate lawsuits, or impose forced labor, but their victims (“If anyone strikes you…wants to sue you…forces you to go one mile…”). There are among his hearers people who were subjected to these very indignities, forced to stifle outrage at their dehumanizing treatment by the hierarchical system of caste and class, race and gender, age and status, and as a result of imperial occupation. Why then does he counsel these already humiliated people to turn the other cheek? Because this action robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate. The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, “Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status does not alter that fact. You cannot demean me.” Such a response would create enormous difficulties for the striker. Purely logistically, how would he hit the other cheek now turned to him? He cannot backhand it with his right hand (one only need try this to see the problem). If he hits with a fist, he makes the other his equal, acknowledging him as a peer. But the point of the back of the hand is to reinforce institutionalized inequality.

So Jesus isn’t saying, “Be a doormat.” Jesus is saying, “Assert your equality. Declare your humanity.” Gandhi said, “The first principle of nonviolent action is noncooperation with everything humiliating.” Martin Luther King, Jr. lived out of this as well.

Samuel Lloyd was one of the Deans of the National Cathedral. In a sermon he said of this, “Sounds like impractical idealism, doesn’t it—just caving in to evil. But in fact, Jesus is acting as a savvy community organizer advising followers who are having to contend constantly with the oppressive Roman rulers. When you have no power you have to find ways

to stand your ground and maintain your dignity. So over-respond, Jesus is saying, and show your oppressor for who he or she is. Let them overplay their hand, and you will be the one who walks away with his dignity. Civil rights leaders knew that when they sat down at segregated lunch counters.”

Jesus is speaking to the poor and the downtrodden, to slaves and Jews and women and prostitutes and children. It’s different for us, though. We aren’t particularly downtrodden. We may not be rich, but we’re not living in poverty either, at least I hope not. We’re not among the rulers of the world or even of this nation, but some of us work for them. There are times when some of us are in the power position in a relationship, and other times that we’re in the position of weakness in another.

The lesson, I think, remains whatever our position is. What does it mean to love my enemies? At least in part, it means that I treat them as my equal. It means that I treat them as humans, as people, not as dogs or animals or something or someone lower than I am by some measure.

The power of Joseph’s story isn’t just that he forgives his brothers. People who have been wronged in a relationship are the people in the power position. Joseph was the one with the power – not just the politicalpower, which he surely had as well, but Joseph was the one with the moral power. Joseph was the one who had been beaten and stripped and given to slavers.

And despite having the power position both physically and morally, Joseph treats his brothers as equals. He hugs them. He kisses them. He tells them to bring their father. He reunites the family. He recognizes their feelings and their guilt and he shows how God used it to bless them and so many other people. And how does the passage end? “And after that his brothers talked with him.” After all of that they gather and they talk once again, as they haven’t been able to talk for many, many years.

Part of treating people as human is taking them seriously. Part of treating people as equals is to listen to them, to try to understand their view, to take them seriously. I struggle with that sometimes, but it’s what Jesus calls us to do. I know, I know, that “You who listen” that opened our Gospel reading wasn’t a command. But if we listen to Jesus, not just hear him but listen to him, then we have to take him seriously. We have to internalize what it is he’s telling us in the verses that follow.

And what he’s telling us is to love our enemies. To do good to those that persecute us. To insist on our own humanity, but to also grant humanity and equality to those we disagree with, those who have power over us, and to those over whom we have power.

I hope all of us try to be among those who listen, both to God, to our friends, and to our enemies. Amen.

Living Lightly on God’s Good Earth

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler

Scripture Readings: Genesis 1:1-2:4, Psalms 104:10-24, Romans 8:18-25

On our vacation, Nate and I had the joy and privilege of spending time amidst wonderous natural beauty and marvelous, astounding animals. We hiked up Table Mountain in Cape Town. We spent hours marveling at African penguins that waddled and swam and napped in little rocky nooks. Our breath was taken away by the dark skies of KwaZulu-Natal Province, where the Milky Way shone brightly for us in a coastal town with very little light pollution (and the power went out, which helped us further). The vastness of two oceans, the Atlantic and the Indian, was awe-inspiring – and somehow, I can say that even though I was stung by a Portuguese Man-Of-War jellyfish while swimming near Durban.

I can’t mention all of the beauty and delight we had on a river full of hippos, at the sight of Nile crocodiles, at the sound of lions crunching their hard-caught meal, or when driving through the gorgeous green mountains of Swaziland.  

King David, in Psalm 19, wrote that “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (vv. 1-4). Our natural world is beautiful, and its vastness and grandeur point humans to the Source of all life and goodness.

God’s Good Earth

God’s story and our story start out with the natural world in focus. In the beginning, the universe was formless chaos. God the Creator took what was chaos and made beauty. In Genesis 1 and 2, we see that God is the Creator and originator of every living thing. The notion of something being made by God inherently imbues it with worth and value. Beyond that inherent value, God the Creator explicitly deems every aspect of creation—night and day, sun, moon, and stars, water, land, plants, animals in the sea and on dry land, and human beings—to be good.

The meaning of “good” here in Genesis 1 is much more than “just okay.” It isn’t “good enough.” For the Hebrew word tov, good is pleasing, pleasant, pure, and delightful. An ancient Jewish commentator Rashbam translated tov as beautiful. We mark Earth Day today because God’s story (and our story) starts out declaring that the earth and every living creature is from God, by God, and good.  

Our Genesis Creation story tells us about the value of our natural world. It also tells us about who we are and should be as humans. We see that humans are created in the image of God and this means that humans have a task in relation to the world.  God blesses humans, calling them to “Be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth, subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (1:28). What exactly does this filling, subduing, and dominion mean?

In his encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis argues that this text has often been misinterpreted, equating subdue and dominion with exploit. Yet to understand it as exploit is to miss the broader biblical message about God’s creation. One way to understand dominion is to think of humans as being given power and authority like God (humans were made in God’s image), to care for everything under their stewardship—just as God cares for both humans, lilies, and the smallest sparrow (Matthew 6:26-31; 10:29-31). Nowhere in scripture does God exploit creation; therefore, the stewards who are made in God’s image (people!) are not supposed to do dominion in that way.

Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann (1982) further adds that “The ‘dominion’ here mandated is with reference to the animals. The dominance is that of a shepherd who cares for, tends, and feeds the animals… Thus, the task of ‘dominion’ does not have to do with exploitation and abuse. It has to do with securing the well-being of every other creature and bringing the promise of each to full fruition” (p. 32). This interpretation fits well with the parallel account in Gen. 2, where God commands Adam to “till and keep” the earth where God has placed him (Gen. 2:15).

Humans fulfill their God-given purpose when they enable ecosystems to thrive. When we protect and sustain the earth, we live out our role as God’s image-bearers. The big picture from Genesis 1 and 2 is that the earth made by God, the earth is good, and that humans are called to protect and care for it.

In the New Testament, we see Creation as good enough for God to be manifest within (John 1 – the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood) and we read that all created things were made by and through Jesus (Colossians 1:15-17; Hebrews 1:2-3). Jesus made and intimately knows and delights in the creeping insect, the budding flower, the newborn kitten, and even the adult human. This “made-by-Jesus” label is something that clearly should impart honor and value to the environment and living creatures.

For some Christians, they can acknowledge that God made the world and maybe that it was originally good, but they don’t want to go further. Those facts aren’t enough to motivate them to change the way they live or to think that caring for the environment is an important calling for the Church. An argument is often made that caring for the environment pales in comparison with preaching the gospel of Jesus, with saving souls and transforming human lives. I believe that this argument is faulty, because it involves an incomplete and shallow understanding of Jesus’ redemption work in our world. It’s not an either/or dilemma. God’s redemption throughout the Bible (from Genesis through Revelation) is actually portrayed as touching every corner of Creation, both human souls and healthy ecosystems. This is the powerful gospel of Jesus that we proclaim.

The Gospel Will Reach Every Corner of Creation

The world recently mourned the loss of the last male northern white rhino in the wild. Around the world, there are many species of animals that are on the brink of extinction or have not been seen for many years. Just yesterday, I saw news that North Atlantic right whales do not have any documented offspring during this breeding season. Pollution, overfishing, entanglement, and blows by passing ships are all factors that are stressing these whales to critical endangerment. While one can talk about the economic, social, and political factors that affect the health of these whales, a biblical perspective leads me to believe that the underlying factor is human sin.

Any time you see ecological devastation in the bible, the cause is human greed or idolatry. If we look from Genesis through Revelation, we can see pictures of sustainability and wholeness as designed by God, we can see destruction and environmental degradation caused by human sin, and thankfully, we can also see God’s vision for the earth’s renewal and redemption.

Starting in the Hebrew scriptures or Old Testament, we can see that the natural order designed by God allows for ecosystems to sustain all organisms. There’s a harmony depicted, with God the Creator holding everything in balance. In Psalm 104, God’s hand is over the natural order of ecosystems, animals, and people. Humans and animals are pictured with all that they need, in a world rightly oriented around God the Creator. It’s when people take their eyes off the Creator that ecosystems are shown to go sideways.

In Exodus, when the people of Israel receive the covenant through Moses, following God has direct implications for the well-being of the Land of Israel (Deuteronomy 28). Right living in the covenant with Yahweh brings blessing, bountiful harvests, and ecological prosperity. Right living included both right worship and right relationships, caring for the marginalized and vulnerable. Idolatry and oppressing the poor would result in the land drying up and becoming infertile. This eventually comes to fruition.

Later, in the prophets, we see the effects of sin on the land (Hos. 4:1-3; Jer. 12:4). In both Hosea and Jeremiah, the land itself mourns as it and the creatures it sustains begin to die. The prophet Ezekiel chastises the Israelites for trampling the land and polluting the water (Ezek. 34:18). In the prophet Jonah, we also see that animals are part of God’s beloved creation, affected by the consequences of human sin. Yahweh calls on Jonah to preach so the Ninevites repent, to save the population of people and cows (Jonah 4: 9-11). God was not just concerned about the destruction of people, but also the destruction of animals; Jonah’s reluctant message delivered both.

During the days of the prophets, things looked bleak because of the consequences of human sin. But amidst prophetic messages of judgment and consequences, Yahweh also sent images of hope and redemption. The Hebrew prophets pointed beyond judgment to an ecological wholeness that would characterize the final reign of Yahweh; reconciliation with God would go hand-in-hand with a fertile, bountiful, and healthy ecosystem (Amos 9:13-15). Peace in the last days would not only include salvation and freedom from violence, but also ecological peace and wholeness—even peace between people and animals (Isaiah 11:6-1; 65:17-25).

These messages continued as God’s Messiah, Jesus, came to deliver hope and redemption. One of the most famous passages cited about Jesus’ redemption is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son.” The Greek word for “world” here does not just refer to humans; a Methodist pastor and author Rebekah Simon-Peter explains that “The word world is actually kosmon in Greek—the cosmos… Jesus’ love is not just for humans, it’s for all creation. That’s why he said to the disciples, ‘Go to all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation’ (Mark 16:15)” (Passi-Klaus, 2015, April 17). Jesus’ salvation redeems human hearts and everything else. In Colossians, we read that “through [Jesus] God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20).

One of my favorite passages of scripture illustrates this further: the apostle Paul writes to the early church in Rome, which has been enduring suffering and persecution, and says that it isn’t just the early church that longs for God’s redemption. Not just humans; “all creation waits and groans for the children of God to be revealed” (Romans 8:18-25). The earth yearns for Jesus to reign, for an end to sin and war and violence and greed and destruction.

Some Christians do not see redemption this way; they see God doing a complete purge of everything on earth. The notion that “it’s all gonna burn” can be a rather convenient theological cover for greed and indifference to God’s creation. Most importantly, I don’t think it’s biblically accurate. While some New Testament voices do use images of fire and destruction to talk about the coming of Jesus’ Kingdom, Jewish tradition does not understand these to be obliteration for something completely different. Rather, fire was used for purifying and healing, much like the biblical image of metal purified or the ecological image of new life after a forest fire. When passages like 2 Peter 3:10-13 and Revelation 21:1-7 talk of new heavens and new earth, the cultural context likely means new as renewed and healed. Understanding it this way also makes more sense alongside passages like Romans 8 and prophetic visions of renewal.

The biblical story starts out with God creating and declaring the created world to be “good.” The last book of the bible shows us a Kingdom where Jesus reigns, where the curse of sin is no longer prevailing, and where God’s full reconciliation will define the world—a redemption that transforms humans and all created things. Jesus declares in Revelation 21:5 “Behold! I am making all things new!” Jesus is making all things new.

Living Lightly on God’s Good Earth

So what does this mean for us? We see in scripture that 1) Creation is good, made by God, and humans are to care for it; and 2) that the gospel of Jesus leads to transformation in human relationships with God and human relationships with the earth. If these are the case, then there are several implications for our lives as Christians. We are to

  1. Act in ways that honor God’s creation, protect it, sustain it
  2. Learn about the impact our lives have on the earth
  3. Find ways to live lightly on earth and reduce our consumption, so that we are not trampling God’s creation (to use the image from Ezekiel).

I’m sure we’ve all been overwhelmed by data and guilt about our role in environmental degradation. Talking about the environment can be paralyzing for folks. So, my exhortation for us today is for three things: 1) connect with God’s Creation in a concrete way, 2) explore change as an individual, 3) help us explore change as a church.

How can you find a way to tangibly connect with God’s Creation on a regular basis? Can you walk or sit outside in the sunshine? Can you tend a plant at home (growing an herb indoors can be easy for apartment dwellers) or garden at church (we’ve got a garden you might have heard about in the announcements)? Can you sit next to or walk along the Anacostia or Potomac Rivers. Take opportunity to praise God and to consider that the earth, the sun, the plants, the trees, the water—these good things—are also each declaring their praise for our common Creator. If you do this already, add a new psalm or song to your outdoor routine to deepen the sense of prayer and worship.

How can you as an individual find a way to live more lightly on God’s Good Earth? Can you switch out some disposable, single-use plastic items for reusable items? Bring your own utensils or metal straws? Can you cut out meat for one meal per week? Can you try public transit, cycling, or walking?

How can we as a church find ways to live more lightly on God’s Good Earth? For starters, we do need some volunteers to improve how we recycle and think about sustainability. Can you help us? We need someone to put clearly marked recycling bins in all rooms where church folks and other guests meet. We could use a little extra coordination for our potlucks to try to reduce (and ideally eliminate) our use of single-use plastic items. Maybe it is by finding volunteers to wash metal utensils (whether it’s washing them at home or at church). Can you help us with outreach and communication to better highlight the steps we have already taken to care for the earth, such signs that tell the community about our solar panels, rain barrels, or our gardens?

I don’t have the answers or even all the right questions that we should be asking. Thankfully, one of the beautiful things about community is that we can learn from each other and challenge each other to live in ways that honor and protect the goodness of God’s creation, demonstrating the power of Jesus’ gospel to transform both our lives and this world. Let us journey together as we follow Jesus, living lightly on God’s good earth. AMEN.

References

Brueggemann, W. (1982). Genesis. Interpretation. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox.

Passi-Klaus, S. (2015, April 17). Christians and Creation: ‘You can’t love God and ignore the Earth’ Retrieved from http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/christians-and-earth-day-you-cant-love-god-and-ignore-earth