Monday, July 10, 2017

Walter Wink and the Modern Congregation

At my church, when our pastor goes away, he tries to find one of us to preach.  It saves our tiny congregation the cost of a supply pastor, plus some of us have considered going to seminary and have some advanced training, so he has congregational resources.

If I'm in town, I say yes when my pastor asks me to preach.  I understand that it's a rare opportunity for lay person in most congregations, and I think that having some additional voices is a bonus.  I often don't know the text in advance, because we're often off lectionary.

When I realized that I'd be preaching on the part of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew that instructs us to turn the other cheek, give up our garments, and walk the extra mile, I knew that I would bring in Walter Wink.  While I don't think his interpretation is particularly radical, I know that it's different from what most of us learned along the way.

Weeks ago, I told my pastor what I planned to do:  "I plan to talk about active resistance that keeps us alive vs. passivity (which has been a gospel too often preached to those who suffer violence.  Reading Walter Wink on this subject changed my life!"

He responded:  "Great - way too many folks fail to grasp the implications of these texts as active resistance."

I also made a point of telling the congregation that I had told our pastor that I would talk about Walter Wink and the book Engaging the Powers, which was published by a Lutheran publishing house--I wanted them to know that I wasn't going out on a shaky limb all by myself.

I expected people to be more upset than they were.  On the contrary, they thanked me for explaining the backstory to the text, about how the right cheek had significance--Jesus specifies the right cheek, which means it's a backhanded slap meant for inferiors.  If I turn the other cheek, I'm putting the aggressor in an impossible place--he can't hit me, and I've said through my actions that I will be treated with dignity. 

It's the same with being forced to walk a mile.  Modern readers wouldn't realize that the subtext is that it's a Roman soldier forcing a person to walk a mile carrying gear--but only a mile, because Rome fancied itself to be civilized and a soldier could be punished if the civilian walked more than a mile.

We also looked at the passage about praying for enemies.  I didn't want to make assumptions about how we all feel about U.S. political leaders. 

I said, "I'll use Vladimir Putin, and you fill in the blank thinking of the person in politics who most fills your Facebook feed with anger and fuming." I thought it was an elegant approach. I said that I needed to remember to pray for Putin, not just to be infuriated by his actions. I needed to remember that God loves Vladimir Putin every bit as much as God loves me. I need to try to see the face of Christ in Putin, as hard as it may be.

I talked a bit about God and free will and demanding that God take action on social justice issues. I said, "I know some of you are now expecting that lightning will come from the sky and strike me dead for presuming to talk to God that way. But we're allowed to do that--read your Psalms, if you don't believe me. I'm allowed to say, 'Hey, God, you need to do something about your man Putin."

I ended by reminding people that we're not put on earth to suffer and die so that we get a good spot in Heaven.  No, Jesus comes to tell us that the Kingdom of God is being created right now, and we can be part.  I said, "And that, my friends, is the Good News that Jesus proclaims again and again."

I was much more eloquent, and I can't quite capture it here.  I think that's because the Holy Spirit was talking through me--before I said it, I wasn't exactly sure how I was going to end.  And suddenly the words flowed.

It was one of the best services I've ever led.  In part, it was because I had a great text.  And I've come to realize that there are days when it all goes well--or badly--for no reason I can discern.

I'm grateful that Sunday's service went well--as my pastor said, it's an important message for people to hear, this necessity of resisting evil in ways that don't make us evil and part of the problem.

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