This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning, the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany. The gospel reading was Luke 6:27-38.
We live in a stress-filled time. I have heard psychologists describe today’s generation of teenagers as the most-stressed out generation ever. I believe it. And I also believe that that is true for many adults as well right now. I don’t know that life is really harder than it used to be, but somehow it’s more stressful. Somehow between the ever-increasing demands on our time, the ever-increasing nasty political climate, worries about shootings and terrorism, the 24-hour news cycle that is now pushed to us on our phones with dings and beeps. It’s just – stressful.
Neurologists tell us that our brains interpret stress as a threat. Our heart rate speeds up, our pupils dilate, adrenaline and cortisol are released, and lots of other things happen that prepare us to do one of two things: fight or flee. It’s called the fight or flight response. That response allowed our ancestors to survive attacks from bears. But most of the threats and dangers we face today are not tigers or bears. They are from other people. Yet we still have that fight or flight response. Road rage. Posting something political in an angry and hurtful way on Facebook. Saying, “If a bully hits you, hit back harder.” Those are “fight” responses. Numbing ourselves with substance abuse, or with too much television, or too much internet. Turning off the news and pretending everything is alright. Saying, “I’m not going to say anything. I don’t want to make waves.” Those are “flight” responses.
Fight or flight are not helpful responses in most situations today. But they’re all we have, right? Jesus said no. Jesus said, no, there is another way. A third way. If anyone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. So the third way is, “Stand right there and get beat up?” The third way is, “Let the bullies win?” “Let your spouse abuse you?” “Let other people walk all over you?” No. That’s not what he means.
Today’s story is in Luke’s gospel. But it’s helpful to remember the story how Matthew told it. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus specifically says, “If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other as well.” That detail is actually crucial. I need a volunteer. In the days of the Roman Empire, the left hand was considered unclean. The left hand was used for toilet functions, and nothing else. You used your right hand for everything else. Including if you were going to slap someone. Look, if I’m going to hit her on the right cheek, using my right hand, then I have to do it like this, back-handed. And hitting someone back-handed is not the best way to hurt them. Rather, it’s a way to humiliate them. Romans would do this to slaves and Jews and children and others they thought were beneath them. They would never hit someone like that on the left cheek, because that would mean they saw you as an equal. So Jesus said, if someone backhand slaps you, offer him the other cheek. Don’t fight back. Don’t run away. But stand there and say, “If you want to hit me, hit me as an equal.”
This is the Third Way. Not fight. Not flight. But a creative way of standing up to violence without fighting back.
Rosa Parks did it. When she was told to move in the bus, she said no. She could have just moved. Or she could have pulled out a gun or a knife and killed the driver. But she stayed where she was, said no, and accepted arrest. That is the third way. And what she did changed America, made us better. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Gandhi. Both used something called nonviolence to change unjust political systems. They both could have lifted up arms and fought a revolution. Or they both could have just said, “Forget it. You can’t beat City Hall.” They didn’t. Not fight. Not flight. But a creative third way. They both changed the world. But it was hard. And it was dangerous.
And there are still people today who do the same thing. Who make their stand in a creative third way that isn’t continuing violence, and that isn’t running away.
And there are third ways in our life as well. Say you’re walking down the street and a homeless man asks you for money. For many of us that’s a stressful situation. It threatens our sense of justice. Do you walk by? Or do you give him the money, and always wonder what he used it for? Jesus says here, “Give to everyone who begs from you.” But he doesn’t say, “Give them exactly what they beg for.” Maybe, maybe the third way here is to sit down and talk to him. Give him dignity, if only for a few minutes. Maybe take him to a store, and buy him some food. That’s not easy. But maybe that’s the third way.
Or imagine a woman in an abusive relationship, being beaten by her husband. Does she fight back? Does she stay? Does she take the kids, leave, and never look back? Jesus says love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Maybe, maybe the third way is to take the kids and leave, but then, as Jesus says, then pray for her husband. Pray for her husband, and work toward slowly forgiving him. Forgiveness in such cases isn’t easy, and it doesn’t happen quickly. And forgiveness doesn’t mean going back to the situation. It means finding a way to let go of the anger, the hurt. That’s not easy. But maybe that’s the third way.
And what about the more mundane stressors, the everyday little paper cuts that add up to the mess we live in? For those of us triggered by political comments on Facebook, is there a third way other than fighting back and feeling worse, or just throwing our phone in the trash can? For those of us overwhelmed with so many commitments on our time, is there a third way other than quitting everything, or just burning out? For those of us who have stubborn and obnoxious four-year-olds, well…let’s just say I would like to find that third way in my life right now.
But I believe this: I believe there are such third ways. I believe that God provides us with a third way through every situation. And I believe this for two reasons: first, because it is precisely the way Jesus lived. Whenever the Pharisees tried to trick him, he found another way through the dilemma. And when he was faced with his own death, he walked to it courageously. As they drove the nails in, Jesus prayed for his enemies, saying, “Father, forgive them!” Jesus could have called on the whole heavenly host to save him from the cross, or to wreak terrible vengeance upon those who were killed him. He didn’t. He walked to the cross, and there he won the victory over death itself. Without fighting. Without fleeing. Jesus lived the third way.
And second, I believe God provides Third Ways because it’s precisely who Jesus is. Jesus is the Third Way. Jesus is God’s Third Way. God made us, and we sinned. We rebelled against God. If God had used a fight response, we would have been wiped out ages ago. If God had used a flight response, God would have abandoned us and maybe tried again on some other planet. But God found a Third Way. To come to earth as a human being. To become one of us. We call Jesus the Son of God, and that is true. But it is equally true to say that Jesus is God. And Jesus Christ died for us. And Jesus Christ was raised from the dead for us. God did not destroy us. God did not abandon us. God redeemed us. Through Christ. Christ is the Third Way. And because Christ lives in us, I believe that we can find the Third Way in every situation as well.
It takes faith, and courage. It takes strength, and patience. These are things God gives us. These are gifts we receive. Come, receive the body and blood of the Third Way of God. Come, trust that his promises are true. Come, and go, and live that Third Way through every moment of your life.