February 24, 2019
7th Sunday after Epiphany, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer
Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen
67 years ago this past Tuesday, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, forcing thousands of Japanese-Americans to move into one of ten internment camps across the country.[i]
One of them was a ball player named Kenichi Zenimura[ii]. Zenimura had been born in 1900 in Hiroshima, Japan, and grew up in Hawaii. As a young adult, he moved to Fresno, California and began to organize Japanese-American baseball leagues. When the nearby town of Livingston put up a billboard insulting his heritage, Zenimura challenged their local baseball team into friendly competition. After a few games between the two teams, the billboards were taken down.
But in 1942, Zenimura was forced to move to a camp near the Gila River in Arizona, and soon learned that there was little to do in the desert sun. Remembering how baseball had bridged cultural barriers in California, he began leveling the desert plains, to construct a baseball field in the internment camp. He sensed that baseball would not only help cheer those who were living in the camp, but might also improve relations between them and their neighbors. Using makeshift supplies and rounding up anything he could find that would serve the purpose, Kenichi Zenimura built a field of dreams, attracting teammates and fans.
By the following summer, the internment camp league had over 32 teams of various abilities. Their top teams were playing nightly games against each other as well as facing teams from nearby Negro and other semi-pro leagues. Zenimura’s squad presented Arizona’s three-time high school state champions, the Tucson Badgers, their only defeat in 53 games. Years later, players from that high school team remembered realizing that Zenimura’s players were no different in patriotism or ability than they were. In fact, they said they could see that their Japanese-American opponents didn’t feel like enemies at all.
According to baseball historian Bill Staples, Jr., Zenimura and the other coaches he recruited in the camps were simply, “trying to teach their ballplayers the concept of shared humanity.”[iii]
Is that what Jesus is trying teach us[iv]? Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. What might this be other than a concept of a shared humanity?
Last week, Pastor Javen introduced us to Jesus’s sermon on the Level Place, comparable to his Sermon on the Mountain in Matthew. Here in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is on a plain. It’s as if the gospel writer wants to emphasize the leveling Jesus’s ministry proclaims, sending the rich away empty, but filling the hungry with good things, bringing down those who sit in powerful places, and lifting up the lowly[v].
In this continuation of the passage Pastor Javen read, Jesus describes a radical form of discipleship, teaching his followers to see others, even those whom we consider enemies, as no worse than ourselves. Jesus invites us to neither judge, nor condemn, and to expect nothing in return for any of our good efforts.
These verses can sometimes trick us into misguided interpretations[vi]. Some people might we read this and figure they’ll never be as merciful as God, so they might as well give up. After all, who can show the other cheek, and give away everything? It’s impossible.
We might dismiss the whole message as too saccharine; loving your enemies and praying for those who hurt you is unrealistic. No one really lives like that.
Others might secretly think, “Well, I do this. I’m humble and loving and charitable. I’m forgiving and know how to turn the other cheek. Jesus must be pleased with me. Jesus probably wants me to make sure everyone else acts more like I do so I’d better make sure everyone else around me is as good as I am.”
The danger in telling people to not judge, and to turn the other cheek, is that it can make victims feel powerless, as if God doesn’t care whether they’re battered or abused. It can sound as if Jesus wants us to be doormats and not worry about injustice.
But we know that’s not true. The God of scripture is a God of justice. God stands with the abused and the neglected. God longs for all persons to have life, and have it in abundance.
I think the problems start when we read this as a morality lesson, as if Jesus is giving us a set of rules about how to live. But I suspect something else is actually happening. Rather than telling us how to behave to gain God’s favor, I think Jesus is inviting us to glimpse a new way of experiencing the life God already grants us. Instead of a morality lesson, I think Jesus is unveiling the Realm of God. Jesus is once again reminding us that the truth and hope and goodness of God’s Promises are being fulfilled today, in our hearing[vii].
The Sermon on the Level Place isn’t so much a list of the requirements God has for us, as much as a description of the way God already allows us to live with one another. In the Reign of God, we aren’t better or worse than one another, we’re not victors over, or doormats under, we’re not more beloved or less. We’re on a Level Place with each other. We share a common humanity. We forgive and are forgiven. We are merciful and receive mercy. We love and are loved. Jesus invites us into egalitarian, holistic, loving companionship with each other, where no one is the abused or the abuser, but all see each other face to face, as claimed, whole, and equally deserving of the love of God.
Lois Malcolm[viii] teaches us that forgiveness means moving to a new place, no longer allowing maltreatment to define either the perpetrator, or ourselves, but standing instead in a place of new life where no one is victim.
Of course, Jesus discovered that reading scripture that way could be dangerous, too. When Jesus unrolled the scripture to the prophet Isaiah and said that the Year of the Lord’s favor was already at hand, the crowds were ready to throw him off the cliff. But he didn’t let their outrage stop him. He went right ahead with the message of life and love and release, and invited them to begin sharing it with him[ix]. In a few more chapters, the powers of death will attempt to quiet his message for good, but they won’t have the ability to do that either. Love will not be stopped by death, and forgiveness and hope and reconciliation will win.
Here’s what I think this Sermon on the Level Place is all about. I think this is a description of the resurrection, and that Jesus is proving that we have already been given access to it. I think Jesus is declaring to us that we can already claim an Easter life, here, before we’ve even started the season of Lent. I think Jesus is proclaiming that the reign of God isn’t postponed until we all figure out how to share and forgive and love and accept. Rather, God is already inviting us into the future, and describing just how free we are to begin delighting in new life, how perfectly free we are to practice the concept of a shared humanity, even while we learn its beauty.
Way back in Genesis[x], when Joseph’s brothers realized that he was alive, God’s people had already been invited into this kind of life. Do you remember what had happened? Joseph’s brothers originally hated him. They resented his boasting superiority complex, and their father’s favoritism. So to get rid of him, the trafficked their brother into slavery and presume he’s been killed.
But Joseph miraculously survives, and has earned a position of power in Egypt. When Joseph’s brothers realize that this is the one they had presumably killed, they are shocked by the way he responds to them. Joseph invites them to experience a shared humanity, where he doesn’t pay them violence for the cruelty they had shown him, where he doesn’t exact revenge on their hatred, but where he puts them on a level place with him, filling their hunger, making them a home, embracing them in forgiveness, and kissing them with the love of reconciliation.
Now, we have to be careful with this Genesis reading too. Because Joseph is so willing to forgive, he claims God designed the pain and hatred he had been shown. Again, it’s hard for me to believe that God would ever have designed us to be hateful to one another.
Rather than saying God sent Joseph into slavery, I tend to read this as if God used the opportunity, even one caused by the brutality and brokenness of the brothers, to bring them all into a new life. God doesn’t want the brothers to hate Joseph, or to continue the violence against him. But God doesn’t let the brother’s viciousness get the last word, either. Rather, God shows them a yet more miraculous way to experience life and freedom.
When Bishop Desmond Tutu included this story in his children’s bible, he added the prayer Pastor Javen taught our children, as the prayer Joseph may have used. Let my love be stronger than my anger.[xi] Joseph claims them again as siblings, part of the same shared humanity.
Here’s the good news for us. The gospel is always inviting us into abundant life, and it starts by reminding us that we’re family with one another. When we remember that none of us is better, and none worse, no one more worthy of love, and none less deserving than anyone else, there is a blessing of abundance that comes to us all. Life in community is what God prepares for us, where all of our needs and our gifts, all our troubles and our joys are all pressed down and shaken together. In God’s community all of us are loved, and forgiven and included, there are no borders or walls, no internment camps, and no one fights for justice.
When we come to God’s table, each one of us with hungry, open hearts, we discover that we each receive a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over placed in our hands. The body of Christ, and the love of God, poured out for each us, to claim us again as Children of the Most High, and to invite us together, to live as members of a shared humanity.
Thanks be to God. Amen
[ii] Alex Coffey, National Baseball Hall of Fame, “A Field of Dreams in the Arizona Desert,” Read all about Zenimura’s baseball league in the camps. http://baseballhall.org/discover/a-field-of-dreams-in-the-arizona-desert
[iv] Luke 6:27-38
[v] Luke 1:52-53
[vi] In the Meantime: Epiphany 7C: Command or Promise, by David Lose http://www.davidlose.net/2019/02/epiphany-7-c-command-or-promise/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+davidlose%2FIsqE+%28…In+the+Meantime%29
[vii] Luke 4:16-21
[viii] Dr. Malcolm is on the faculty of Luther Seminary, and a member of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church. She shared this description of forgiveness with us at a forum some years ago, and it has stuck with me. http://www.luthersem.edu/faculty/fac_home.aspx?contact_id=lmalcolm
[ix] Luke 4:28-30
[x] Genesis 45:3-11, 15
[xi] Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Children of God Storybook, 2010, http://books.google.com/books?id=ae8ChPGfYdIC&pg=PT26&lpg=PT26&dq=let+my+love+be+stronger+than+my+anger+desmond+tutu+joseph+and+his+brothers&source=bl&ots=Oo3ifWyX9G&sig=ACfU3U1pj6WKfcoLT7PfqqlciKso19fJ-g&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiI_4OS5NTgAhUGiIMKHddODZMQ6AEwAHoECAQQAQ#v=onepage&q=let%20my%20love%20be%20stronger%20than%20my%20anger%20desmond%20tutu%20joseph%20and%20his%20brothers&f=false