Karen’s Note: The following is a post from a veteran-turned-pastor friend. Many of you regular readers are already familiar with Roger. Please feel free to share your thoughts with him. I know he’d like to engage with you on these matters. Roger lives and serves in Portland.
On the Good News of Jesus from Matthew 5:21-37, Deut. 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Cor. 3:1-9
–by Pastor Roger Fuchs
Author’s note: The terms “left” and “right” in this piece should not be taken as synonyms for liberal and conservative terms of politics. Understand them as they are developed in the text. As we are biased to right-handedness, so we are biased to believe in the rightness of our own ideas, sometimes to great harm. My friend Karen has a term for this, the religion of “certainosity”. There is a bit of it about these days…
I wasn’t always left handed. My Mom put the spoon in my right hand when I was a toddler. Why the right hand? That’s the right thing to do, right?
Things changed abruptly in 1949 when I pushed a chair up to the kitchen range and badly burned my right hand. Bandages in those days were made of strips torn from worn out long underwear slathered with yellow Rawleigh antiseptic salve from the big can. My right hand was bandaged for several weeks. I learned to eat with my left hand. When the bandages came off, I refused to switch back.
I still recall looks of disapproval from uncles and aunts and cousins when we gathered at Christmas and family reunions. They thought it rather odd, a dereliction of duty, that my family or my first-grade teacher did not “correct” me when I started school. Why? Because being left-handed just isn’t right. Right?
The bias is ancient and deep. Perhaps because ancient people cleansed their bodily functions using the left hand it became ritually unclean for life. The right hand is reserved for the noble functions of eating, greeting and honor. In the Apostles’ Creed and in liturgy, we proclaim that Jesus is Lord and is “seated at the right hand of the Father.” In multiple languages, the adjective right is synonymous with the words correct, true, honest, moral and ethical. Right is the opposite of wrong. Right is the antithesis of left.
Shields and coats of arms of heraldry have an elaborate symbolic history. The right side of the shield is the good omen side, the good fortune side. The right side is the dexter side, the side of agility, capability; yes, dexterity. The correct term for the left side of the shield? Sinister. The left side is the ominous, unlucky side, the side associated with disastrous developments. I confess. I write with my “sinister” hand today.
In 1969, I took the oath of enlistment. Several times over the years I have given sworn testimony in depositions and in court. Always, I was asked to raise my right hand. Never the left. Never.
Except in special circumstances, my Lutheran denomination does not do thematic “sermon series” preaching. Instead, we follow a traditional body of biblical texts (Old Testament, a Psalm, New Testament Epistle, and Gospel) that repeat every three years.
Year A generally follows Matthew’s gospel; Year B, Mark; Year C, Luke. In any year, we couldn’t do Christmas without Luke. Lent and Easter would be much shallower without generous helpings of John. From Advent through Christ the King Sunday in November, we tell the story of Jesus through the seasons. Always, the story of Jesus.
It might seem obsolete in today’s fast-paced, changing world to follow such an ancient rhythm. Hot topics and burning agendas demand that the preacher preach on them now. Sometimes that works. Sometimes, it can end up being just the preacher’s own “stuff”. Nothing calls for a higher level of caution and self-criticism than preaching.
More often than not as I have faced the challenge of bringing a prophetic word in the light of grace, I have found the ancient pattern of pre-selected texts to be eerily prescient and pertinent. I’m forced to wrestle with and listen to texts I would never have chosen. Not surprisingly, honest submission works. “Divinely inspired” takes on new meaning. How could God have known we needed this? Huh? How could God not?
2017 has seven Sundays of Epiphany. On the four just before Lent, we dabble in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5. This highly compressed collection of Jesus’ sayings spans three chapters. Four weeks seem an injustice. We need six months! Jesus doesn’t trash Moses. He deepens Moses by orders of magnitude.
In last week’s text of Matthew 5:21-37, verses 29 and 30 stand out from all the rest. Here they are, all by themselves:
29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
Ouch! Debating whether to go literal on self-mutilation here might cause us to completely miss Jesus’ point. I suggest we take him even more seriously than literally.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “Grab the ice pick or the axe if your left eye or your left hand leads you into sexual immorality, sexual abuse, rape, anything that violates the integrity of another human being or living thing.”
He says, “If your right eye or your right hand does that, amputate!” Beware, folks! It may be precisely our good side, our right side—yes, our holy side and our religious side–that can be filled with blind spots, with rationalization of lusts and greeds and self-deceptions, with the ghastliest crimes against humanity in history, with the destruction of creation itself. Our good right hands and eyes… Yes, they can!
History is humbling. Hitler was sure he was right. The Catholic and protestant Christians who fought each other from 1618 to 1648 and took over eight million lives were probably dead sure they were right. So right they worshiped war for 30 years!
So, too, the white Christians who slaughtered Native Americans, burned black churches with people in them, engaged in lynchings and cross burnings, who met peaceful civil rights marchers with German shepherds, fire hoses and clubs, who arrested people for sitting in a seat on a bus or at a restaurant, for using a restroom, drinking from a water fountain, going to school. For talking to the wrong person in public.
Right-minded men could write the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” but they could not see that their very definition of humanity excluded the majority of human beings. It was not the left-sided hearts and minds of atheists that did this. It was the high-minded right sides of God-fearing men.
My good friend Brian was among the first Army units to occupy Iraq. His unit rounded up Iraqis by the hundreds and delivered them to the concentration camp known as Abu Ghraib Prison. Brian and some of his fellow soldiers had a bad gut feeling about this. Some asked themselves, “Will this come back to haunt us someday?”
I think it has. See how wound up we are over who wants to do us harm! I never hear us asking why that might be so. I am not saying terrorism is all our fault. But have we ever asked whether military interventions can actually backfire? Are we willing to honestly assess preemptive war, the cost/benefit ratio of blood and money spilled on all sides, and whether the world is safer or more dangerous than before? Are we willing to hold ourselves—not some named or nameless scapegoat—accountable?
We would not buy stock in Intel or Boeing if they did not do this kind of self-evaluation. Why can’t nations do it? Isn’t Jesus calling us as a people and a church to look honestly at what our right hands and eyes do? But aren’t these political and economic issues that don’t belong in church?
Or are they human life issues, human community issues, justice and righteousness issues, care of creation issues and kingdom of God issues that belong at the foot of the cross like nowhere else? Where better to choose life? Where better to confess failure, seek renewal? Where better to be honest to God? Where better to lay bare the wrongs of our human “rightness”?
What’s left of right? So asks the preacher who writes with his sinister hand.