Thursday, February 16, 2017

Reflections on Sunday's Readings, Seventh Sunday After the Epiphany, Year A: Retribution

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”Matthew 5:38-48

I grew up playing contact sports. First, it was soccer (football) for 12 years. Then, it was rugby for a year in Scotland in college. After I left seminary, I started training in aikido. so, for a large part of my younger years, I knew what it was like to be hit, and to hit another person in the name of sport. I also learned what it meant to train in a warrior's art, albeit one that is ultimately focused on peaceful resolution of conflict.

Learning about physical conflict in the context of sport was both a blessing and a curse. I was a curse because, like many youth, I had to learn how to struggle with and resolve the impulses that come with being "allowed" to vent physical tension onto another person. I also had to come to terms with someone venting those impulses on me...and I had to absorb the discipline of something that athletes must, if they wish to have a longer career: how NOT to retaliate when another person assaults you, fouls you or in any way hits you harder that is necessary, warranted or allowed in the rules of the game.

I learned that lesson materially: one game against a rival played by my high school team got out of hand. The Barr brothers, one the goalie and the other a defensive sweeper were playing the back field against a very aggressive striker. The striker did something "over the line" and fouled the goal keeper. The brother of said goalkeeper (by the way, they were both hockey players as well), "defended" his brother by tackling the striker, pulling his jersey over his head, proceeding to beat him with an over the head forearm. The referee moved in quickly with a red card (ejection) from the field for the one who retaliated for the egregious foul. The other players on both squads moved in quickly, and were held off by the ref and told to stand still. The coaches turned to their benches (which were off their feet and ready to join in the incipient melee) and told them to sit down. My sister, who was the scorer, yelled the same to our side. Everyone was in shock. The result? Ejection from the game for all three players...and a penalty kick for the opposing side. Even though the first foul was aweful, it was the retaliation that was the greater "sin" in that moment.

We ran sprints for days as a team to atone for that foul. Our coach wanted aggressive play, but was intolerant of that aspect. Retaliation, retribution...that was anathema to honorable play, to an honorable life.

Rugby was another sport in which I learned a lot about sportsmanship in the midst of violence. Some of the hardest hits I ever experienced in my life were ones I earned on the pitch. One stands out...I was a full back, the man at the end of the line who is tasked with either running like mad up field or kicking the ball downfield to reset the pitch. I had the ball tucked for a run as the line reset behind me...and then I felt a tug at the back of my head: I had long hair then, pulled back in a pony tail and tucked/taped under my collar (because everything below the collar was fair game). My hair had come loose, and a scrum half had grabbed it. My feet went up into the air as my scalp tore-just a little bit-and I went down. One of the hardest hits I have ever felt, and one that could have meant a bad tussle on the field, if I had gotten up with retaliation or retribution in mind.

But, that didn't happen. Instead of getting up on my own, the gentleman (actually, a real-live duke), picked me up, literally dusted me off, said "sorry, mate" and then pushed-pulled me back into the game. After the game, he helped tape me up and then took me out for a pint. You may laugh at that, but it was one of the best moments of restorative justice I have ever experienced.

I would love to say that moment was a watershed for me, and that I have been able to keep a mindful and non-retaliatory stance going in my life since I saw the sky through the space between my feet. That's not the case. I have sought an eye for an eye...and more, since then when feeling wounded I have retaliated and sought retribution. I have also been guilty of the sin of dismissal, and of contempt for the other-both enemy and friend....even beloved...when things don't go the way I want them to.

We all struggle with wanting someone to be more....more sorry, more "paid back" or more remonstrated than we feel was appropriate for the slight or injury offered. We come from that place that Jesus talks about when he says, "You have heard that it was said." Why, because we have said it, felt it and acted it out.

What remains is our willingness to accept Jesus' invitation to embrace mercy, to pick up our enemies from the dust and work to restore relationships with them, to love our enemies and our neighbors as we love our own selves, to be the people of reconciliation as much before the wounding as after it...and finally to know that we can only become the "perfect" that Jesus is talking about when we are actually willing to embrace our imperfection, and then forgive ourselves and each other for so spectacularly falling short of the mark while rising to repentance in the next moment.

Just like the duke who picked me up out of the mud that day in Scotland...and my teammates that day who didn't retaliate...real healing can happen on the gaming pitch and in real life. We just have to allow for it, to seek it and to embrace it when it is offered.

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