The Perfect Way.
Its hard to believe that February is half over. Lent is almost here.
Next week we will focus on
the Transfiguration of the Lord during Sunday worship
as we prepare to enter the season of Lent
on Ash Wednesday that week, March First
All this means that our Month Long trek through
the Sermon on the Mount comes to an end today.
We explored the Blessings of God,
God’s proclamation of a New Realm on Earth
How those blessings are proclaimed to all,
But particularly those left out, shut out, and hurting
We looked at how welcoming others, particularly the stranger
The foreigner, the refugee
Might be the best sort of blessing.
We looked at how we are called to be Salt of the Earth
and Light for the world
recognizing that Salt is not the Thing
that Light is not the Thing
that Church is not the Thing
but how we are to be giving of our life
so that others may have life, is the thing.
And we had a wonderful interlude last Sunday
When our youth led us through their own superbowl of caring.
Its been a full and a very faith filled month for us..
And now we come to today’s reading in Matthew,
where we hear Jesus speaking these words to us:
‘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.
May God bless to us our Reading
And our Understanding
And our Applying of this Word, to how we live our lives. Amen.
So, New Testament scholar Greg Carey was pondering this passage recently:
“Stumbling into the kitchen after a long day of work,
I put down my groceries and [checked the voice-mail on my cell phone].
It was my (then) -year-old daughter Erin.
‘Dad, I’m the [liturgist] in church on Sunday,
and I have that passage where Jesus says,
“Turn the other cheek”
You know that passage, right?
Is it different in the other gospels? She asked
“Could you let me know, because…no offense Dad,
but I think Jesus is wrong…[i]”
When I read that, it resonated with me, somewhere.
I’m proud. I can take many insults
but there are buttons that people can push if they know them
buttons that make turning the other cheek a real challenge for me.
Are you like that?
Don’t even get me started on the “loving our enemies” part.
I know of few passages in all of scripture
more challenging than that.
When you sit with victims of abuse and violence,
when you read stories in the paper these days that seem rooted
in all sorts of fear mongering and hatred…
when you see families broken apart so they don’t even venture out to church
or others who are worried to death about covering services for their autistic kids
because things are so so tentative in health care right now…
Pray for those who persecute you…
So what does it say about a God who asks this of us?
We have real difficulty embracing a God who seems to be asking
the IMPOSSIBLE of us…
…so we seek a way around it…
–If Jesus is not saying: “Be a VICTIM…”…and he’s NOT saying that.
Don’t let an abuser TWIST these words to make you think that.
–If Jesus is also NOT saying just: “Be NICE”—
–where do we go from there?
Maybe first is this:
We need to be cautious about our tendency to SHRINK these texts
down to a palatable size…
These passages in the Sermon on the Mount are so familiar and so beautiful,
we can almost forget how DEMANDING they are.
Turn the other cheek.
Go the second mile.
Love your enemies.
Be perfect, as God is perfect.
Its no wonder we Christians have developed elaborate strategies
to dodge these demands.
Sure: we might note the difficulty in understanding
the translation of this word or that word, and rightly so.
And we might explain the context
We might go through the lex talonis, say, that’s the law of equal measure…
and we would note that this law was more about
RESTRAINING our appetite for escalating revenge
than it was for making SURE we GOT an eye
for each eye that was taken from us…
it means something like JUST take an EYE for that EYE
not his HAND also, for goodness sake….
Or we might note the particulars of the Roman occupation
how Roman law permitted soldiers to force you
to carry their goods a mile…no more, mind you, they were civilized
and how carrying it a second might really unnerve them
and maybe even get them in trouble
with their superiors too…
All of that would be true,
and maybe this context would lead us to postulate
that we could avoid facing the difficulty
of following these words of Jesus just so
in our day and in our age.
Things are different now, you see.
But the truth of the matter
is that all of these interpretations suffer from the same problem:
Matthew’s gospel as a whole—
–and the Sermon on the Mount in particular
–repeatedly insist that Jesus means EXACTLY what he says.
We can’t get off the hook that easily…
Living this calling, this way of Jesus, isn’t easy.
But when you look around, you can see people faithfully working at it.
It is something to behold.
For example, my kids have really been into the history of our founding as a nation.
This has been one of the unexpected side effects
of the success of the musical Hamilton.
Their history teachers are positively giddy.
And as I was reading up on this period, trying to keep up with my kids
I came across a story that historian David Hacket Fischer tells
in his book Washington’s Crossing.[ii]
Apparently Washington himself set the American policy
towards captured enemies during the war—
“persons under control” in the language of military operations.
After the battles in New York,
thousands of American prisoners of war were treated
with extreme cruelty by British captors.
Some Americans escaped, and their reports spread
enflamed the populace with anger toward the British.
But after the battle of Trenton,
George Washington ordered that Hessian captives
would be treated as human beings
[treated] with the same rights of humanity for which
Americans were striving.
The Hessians were amazed to be treated with decency, even kindness….
Washington ordered one of his most trusted officers to look after them:
“You are to take charge of 211 privates of the British army…
…and treat them with humanity
and let them have no reason to complain
of our copying the brutal example
of the British army in their treatment
of our unfortunate brethren.”
“Congress and the Continental army generally
adopted this ‘policy of humanity.’
Their moral choices in the War of Independence
enlarged the meaning of the American Revolution.”
Now, reflecting on all of this,
and on our current efforts in prosecuting the War on Terror,
and how we as a country
are treating captured “enemy combatants”
Episcopal Priest Fleming Rutledge responded:
“The argument of those who support torture as a means of
extracting information [from our ‘enemies’]
is that since 9/11 we are dealing with a different type of enemy—
–An enemy that does not DESERVE to be treated
as George Washington treated the Hessians.
But this is NOT a new argument. – Rutledge argues.
This idea that the human race can be divided up
into the deserving and the undeserving…it’s a UNIVERSAL notion.
“Making distinctions between the righteous and the unrighteous
Seems to be built into religion.” She noted…
…At least it was until Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount…
Or there is this, from a pastor who began his ministry in Appalachia.[iii]
Very early on in his ministry, maybe 30 years ago,
there was this skirmish happening nearby
and Fred was asked to see what he could do to stop it.
He came upon a group of men shooting toward a mountain cabin.
They were hiding behind barrels, protecting themselves, and
he got them to stop shooting so he could approach the cabin.
He walked up, and a gun barrel jutted out,
and the voice of a woman came from behind the door:
WHO are you, and WHAT do you want?
He told her that he was a minister from town, wanted to help—
–and she let him in.
The inside was riddled with gunfire.
What’s the quarrel?
“I have no quarrel,” she said.
How long have you lived here?
“About a week.”
Where are you from?
“Western New York.”
Are you a member of a church?
“Yes, we’re Roman Catholic.”
So the preacher went back out to talk with the men.
Unbelievably, two of the guys who were shooting were members of his church.
Do you know who she is?
“No, but THEY say she’s from up North.”
Do you know what church she belongs to?
“No, but THEY say she’s Roman Catholic.”
What has she done?
“We don’t want her kind in the community.”
What kind is that?
It went on and on…
…finally, the pastor realized he was on the wrong track.
He stopped talking about North and South
Protestant and Catholic
outsiders and insiders…
Finally he said, “tell me about your God.”
The God they worshipped was MEAN.
So he said to the group:
“Fellas, we’ve got a problem.
And its not about the woman,
and its not about me,
and its not about you.
We have a problem about God.”
And he spent the rest of his ministry in that church talking about God,
teaching about God, showing the community what God is like.
And he did that by pointing at Jesus:
Christians believe that when we look at Jesus Christ…
…right THERE is where we see what God is all about.
And in Christ we see the one who wins victory through suffering,
the one who blesses the very ones who persecute him,
the one who wants us to love those who hate us.
It is difficult to love THIS God…
IT seems almost impossible…
Or there is this report about Peter Storey,[iv]
the former Bishop of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa
and the President of the South African Council of Churches.
“One important task in South Africa’s struggle for liberation
was to help people IMAGINE what they found unimaginable:
a South Africa where black and white lived together in peace.
It was CRUCIAL for the church to help INCARNATE that dream,
so we could say to an unwilling nation:
There! That is what we mean
when we talk about God’s future for South Africa!
That is the new South Africa!
He then tells this story:
I once received a phone call in the early hours of the morning
telling me that one of my black clergy colleagues
in a very racist town
had been arrested by the secret police.
I got up and drove out there, picked up another minister,
and then went looking for him.
We were accompanied by a large white Afrikaner guard
to a little room where we found Ike Moloabi
sitting on a bench wearing a sweatsuit
and looking quite terrified.
He had been pulled out of bed in the early hours
of a freezing winter morning and dragged off like that.
I said to the guard, “We are going to have Communion”
and I took out of my pocket a little chalice
and a tiny little bottle of Communion wine
and some bread.
I spread my handkerchief on the bench between us
and made the table ready,
and we began the Liturgy.
When it was time to give the Invitation, I said to the guard,
“This table is open to all, so if you would like to share with us,
please feel free to do so.”
This must have touched some place in his religious self,
because he took the line of least resistance and nodded rather curtly.
I consecrated the bread and the wine
and notice that Ike was beginning to come to life a little.
He could see what was happening here.
Then I handed the bread and the cup to Ike
because one always gives the Sacrament first
to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters—
–the ones that are hurting the most—and Ike ate and drank.
Next must surely be the stranger in your midst,
so I offered the bread and the cup to the guard.
You don’t need to know too much about South Africa
to understand what white Afrikaner racists felt
about letting their lips touch a cup
from which a black person had just drunk.
The guard was in crisis:
he would either have to overcome his prejudice
OR refuse the means of grace.
After a long pause, he took the cup and sipped from it,
and for the first time I saw a glimmer of a smile on Ike’s face.
Then I took something of a liberty with the truth and said,
“In the Methodist liturgy,
we always hold hands when we say the grace…”
…and very stiffly, the ward reached out his hand
and took Ike’s and there we were in a little circle,
while I said the ancient words of benediction:
“The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the love of God,
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all.”
…From that moment forward, the power equation
between that guard and Ike was changed forever.
God’s shalom had broken through that makeshift Table.”
That kind of change….is so difficult.
It seems impossible, does it not?
That sort of transformation…well…is PERFECT.
It is so DIFFICULT to love a God who asks us to be PERFECT
unless THIS is the picture of perfection.
NOT a requirement to get 100 on every test.
NOT the need to prove absolute moral purity.
THIS perfection—is a life that is complete, a life that is whole,
A life spent living God’s intention of compassion for others.
The word “perfect” here is the same word that Jesus used on the cross
when he said, “It is finished.”
This is the The Perfect Way: the love of the Cross. The way of self-giving LOVE.
And this call for us to be PERFECT
is for us to aim to live the sort of life
that Jesus will live.
God’s care for us leads to God’s TRUST in us:
That we can truly look on a world without insiders and outsiders.
That we can face assault and use LOVE to SHAME the oppressor.
We can experience a slap and NOT return it.
We can endure hate and NOT hate back.
We can live our life far deeper than some tepid motto “Be friendly”
We can live our life far more courageously
to SEE the world as God sees it,
to EXPERIENCE the world as Jesus saw it from the CROSS.
It is hard to love a God that expects us to live this way.
If it were “love your neighbors, hate your enemies”—we can do that.
But that is decidedly NOT what God intends for us,
and its not what JESUS lived.
God does NOT intend for us to spend our love just on family and friends.
God expects us to LOVE without limit or category.
God calls us to LOVE…
where it is the most difficult, most impossible to do.
Every week, in our community prayer, we include some version of this teaching
We pray for those who would want to do us harm.
Why do we do that?
Its because we want to be shaped by Jesus
Who taught us how vital it is to love those who love us
And to love those who do not.
Even as we work to challenge the oppressors
And set people free from the grip of irrational fear
And pick up the pieces after tragedy strikes
This LOVE is at the heart of what Jesus embodies
What Jesus is all about.
Be perfect, Jesus teaches us.
“Be perfect.” That’s NOT an indictment
from a God we find hard to love or follow.
It is a PROMISE that carries with it POSSIBILITY,
HOPE for a BETTER, more LOVING, more PEACEFUL world
what we mean when we talk about the “Kingdom of God.”
It is a WAY of LIFE: one that rejects seeing the other as an enemy to be vanquished.
It is a vision that we may love the world as God has loved us—
abundantly and completely.
[i] Greg Carey, “Exegetical Perspective” Feasting on the Word, Year A, volume 1. Edited by Barbara Brown Taylor and David Bartlett (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) p. 381. This sermon is indebted to the previous work of Mark Ramsey, and particularly his sermon “Perfect” from February 20, 2011 at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, Asheville, North Carolina.
[ii] David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (Oxford University Press, 2004) p378-379, and cited in Fleming Rutledge, Not Ashamed of the Gospel (William B Eerdmans, 2007) p 168-169.
[iii] This story told by Fred Craddock in a sermon entitled “When the Bible Makes Me Angry,” preached at Cherry Log Christian Church, Cherry Log, Georgia.
[iv] This story was cited in Victoria Curtiss’ sermon “The Teachable Kingdom” at Forth Presbyterian Church of Chicago on November 28, 2010. It is quoted from Peter Storey’s article “Table Manners for Peacebuilders” in Conflict and Communion, edited by Thomas Porter (Discipleship Resources, 2006) pp 61-62.
Image credit: Malin Maria Cecilia Rickenlund, on her website, with the caption: “With Demi Lovato’s partnership with seventeen magazine and The Jed Foundation to spread the message Love Is Louder Than The Pressure To Be Perfect I took a picture of myself with those words written on my hands.” http://helloiambillie.com/2011/04/24/love-is-louder-than-the-pressure-to-be-perfect/