Doing Improv with Jesus

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
Matthew 5:38-48

I love improvisational theater.  It was what I studied as an undergrad.  It was part of how I made my living for several years after I graduated.  And once I started seminary, the Spirit found ways of incorporating it into my life in ways that I’d never expected.   Like this:

In improv, there are these “rules,” and I use the term pretty loosely.  And the first of these rules is, “Say ‘Yes, And.”

In a scene, saying “Yes, And” means accepting your scene partner’s offer and building on it.  So say Pr. Tom comes up to me in an improv scene and mimes handing something to me, and says, “Here, I got you this flaming cat,” then my job would be to accept that offer and build on it–say “Yes, And.”  “My goodness, what a lovely flaming cat!  What a clever way to stay warm on these mean streets of Manhattan, and solve the feline overpopulation problem at the same time!”  Suddenly the scene is off and running–we’re two homeless people on the streets of New York, fighting for survival against bitter winter cold and a slew of competitive, smelly, unspayed felines.

(Don’t worry.  No cats were actually hurt during the writing of this sermon.)

You may be wondering what all this has to do with a theological education.  Well, it turns out that Jesus is a fantastic improviser.   If you don’t believe me, try reading today’s gospel while you think about the rule of ‘Yes, and.”  Jesus “Yes, Ands” all over the place during the Sermon on the Mount.

“If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other one also,” says Jesus.  OK: how would someone have to strike you in order to hit the right cheek?  Either they had to use their left hand–which in Jesus’ time, you did not use for anything except going to the bathroom—or, more likely, Jesus is describing a backhanded blow.

The thing about backhanded blows is that there’s not something you do to an equal.  As Walter Wink points out in a great article called “Jesus’ Third Way,” backhanded blows are something you do to someone who you see as inferior.  “Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; Romans, Jews. The whole point of the blow was to force someone who was out of line back into place.”

And that, by the way, is precisely the group of people to whom Jesus is speaking.  The crowds that followed Jesus up the mountain were the sort of people to whom someone who heals sickness and questions authority and speaks in parables and stirs the pot would appeal.  They were not powerful or influential.  They were the kind of people who got backhanded.  And to them, Jesus says, “turn the other cheek.”

It’s hard to understand how that might have been good news.  But picture for a moment what it would mean for someone who’d been backhanded across the right cheek to offer their left to their attacker.  It would mean that the other person couldn’t backhand them again—the nose is in the way.  True, it would mean presenting the attacker with a perfect target for a right-hand punch—but guess what?  In first century Palestine, only equals fought with their fists.

So by standing there, left cheek raised for an oncoming blow, the person is “Yes, And”ing: “Here, hit me again, and when you do, you’ll be acknowledging me as an equal.”  And that’s the last thing the attacker wants.  Jesus is describing a nonviolent way to shift power.

And he’s not done yet: “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.”  Jesus is saying, “When you show up at court the next morning and face the guy who’s taken everything from you, and even wants to take the clothes off your back, then give him everything you’ve got, and march out of that courtroom stark naked.”  Say “Yes,” to your vulnerability, and make it a strength, says Jesus.

It may delight you to know that this tactic actually works.  In 2003, under immense public pressure, the warlords who had kept a civil war going in Liberia for fourteen years met together to negotiate peace.  A movement called Liberia Women Mass Action for Peace was what had mainly brought them to the table, and to ensure that they would stay there, a group of Liberian women followed the warlords to the hotel where the negotiations were taking place.  Several of the warlords tried to slow or stop the negotiations, rousing the women into protest.  When police threatened to arrest the women, Leymah Gbowee, their organizer and leader, told them that if they tried, she would strip naked.  It worked.  The women remained free, and the warlords reluctantly returned to negotiations.

“If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”  Jesus said this in response to a common practice, where a Roman foot soldier was allowed to conscript a civilian to carry his gear for one mile.  Civilians were not happy about the arrangement.  Entire towns would empty in advance of a Roman marching column.

Imagine if what Jesus describes were actually to happen.  A Roman soldier swaggers up to a civilian, drops sixty pounds of gear in front of him, and orders the civilian to pick it up.  The civilian does so, and goes the requisite mile.  Then the soldier reluctantly reaches out to take the gear until he can find another hapless civilian, but the carrier says, “Oh no, I’ll keep on.”  Suddenly the swagger is gone from the soldier’s steps.  What’s going on?  Why is this Jewish peasant suddenly so cooperative?  The soldier looks furtively at his captain, who is required by law to punish him if he thinks the soldier is taking advantage of the local peasantry. The humble civilian is lifted up, and the powerful soldier is cast down from the seat of control.

Can you picture it?  People tapping their left cheeks, knowing that their abusers can’t strike them again without giving them the victory. People striding naked from courthouses and announcing to the world that the warlords made them do this.  People trudging steadfastly on the dirt roads, shouldering heavy packs, while a soldier hovers beside them, asking them quietly, so the captain won’t hear, if they please wouldn’t mind giving the gear back?  This is a world where the Magnificat has come true: the mighty are cast down from their thrones.  The humble are lifted high.  God’s vision has become the reality.

This is a lot of time to spend unpacking one piece of the gospel.  And I thank you for putting in the time, because it’s all too easy to let words as familiar as “turn the other cheek” pass right through our brains without the meaning really landing.  But it’s worth spending all that time, because Jesus says, “Turn the other cheek” in a world that says, “stand your ground,”  and it’s easy—too easy—to get lost in the rhetoric of justifiable force and fail to recognize that Jesus is saying here that “justice” and “force” don’t belong in the same phrase.

This was a particularly difficult week to sit without that phrase, because while I sat wondering what to write about the words, “Turn the other cheek,” my thoughts were filled with the conversation surrounding the verdict of the Michael Dunn trial, which was released a week ago yesterday.

In case you don’t know about the trial, in November 2012, Michael Dunn fired ten shots into a parked SUV full of black teenagers because they were playing their music loudly.  One of the teenagers, Jordan Davis, died.  He was seventeen.  In their verdict, the jury found Dunn guilty on three counts of attempted murder, because he fired three times at the car as it was leaving, and one count of firing into an occupied car.  But the jury could not reach a decision on the count of first-degree murder.  They could not decide whether Dunn’s actions could justifiably be called self-defense or not.

I spent a lot of time this week, in early sermon drafts, trying to come up with comparisons to make Jesus’ examples relevant to our modern world.  But I couldn’t.  I was coming up with stuff like, “When someone tries to start an argument on your Facebook wall…”  or, “When the neighbor’s dog poops on your lawn again…”.  Stuff I couldn’t stand in the pulpit and hold up to you as equal to the oppression that Jesus was speaking about.

But just because we aren’t oppressed like that doesn’t mean that Jesus isn’t also speaking to us in today’s gospel. In his book about the conflict between Israel and Palestine, Mitri Raheb reflects, “The God of the Bible is simultaneously the God demanding justice, and the God promising it.”  We are blessed to be in the position to respond to God’s command to do justice.  We can protest injustice with the expectation that we will be heard and respected.

We are not the people who get backhanded.  The shirts on our back are not being taken from us. We are not forced to walk a mile under the weight of the weapons used to conquer us.  We are not the mothers whose sons are dying because the warlords care more about power than about peace.  We are not the family of Jordan Davis, listening to a verdict where a man is held responsible for firing a gun, but not for using it to kill our son.

But along with such people, we belong to Jesus Christ, who, in the greatest “Yes, And…” of his career, turned the other cheek by walking to the cross out of love for us, and hung dying for the love of us, and lay dead for three days, all for love of us.  We are the people who have been saved by grace, freed from fear, and told to love like that.

And as we prepare to walk out of the sanctuary today, we’ll sing a hymn that is really a prayer, a prayer that God will deliver us from complacency and stir us to work to bring God’s kingdom into flower.  I invite you to pray with me a paraphrase of that hymn:

God of grace and God of glory, pour your power on us: the power that cures our warring madness; the power that frees our hearts for faith and praise; the power that brings all people to look at your church and be astonished by the beautiful work that you are doing through it.  Grant us wisdom.  Grant us courage. Strengthen us, we pray, for the facing of this hour. 




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