Sermon of the Week:
More Than They Ask For
The third of a four part sermon series: Do Unto Others–Being Good Neighbors in a Pandemic
Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Third Sunday after Pentecost
Keywords: Be Perfect, Sermon on Mount, Break the Cycle, Go the Extra Mile, Revenge, Patrick Hutchinson. #pcusa
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
Is following Jesus supposed to be easy, or kinda hard?
That’s not meant to be a trick question,
but I admit, it’s not an easy one to answer.
On the one hand, Jesus himself, somewhere in the Gospel according to Matthew, says
come to me, all you who are weary
all who are carrying heavy burdens,
and I will give you rest….
my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
That’s the comforting side of Jesus,
the one who gets you, you know,
who knows that life has been tough these days,
tough for all of us,
and depending on what’s going on with us,
maybe particularly tough…
This is the Jesus that stands where the hurting people stand
with the comfort of solidarity, and promise.
The Jesus who refuses to let our failures be the last word
as he told the woman rendered guilty by those who would judge her
and cast stones at her.
The Jesus who gives the hungry food to eat
and tells the children to join him, even when others give disapproving looks.
The Jesus who declares God’s blessing
for the poor in spirit, the peacemaker, the one who is reviled.
The Jesus who tells frazzled disciples:
peace, I leave with you; my peace, I give to you…
That Jesus seems kind of easy to follow.
I am excited about following Jesus there.
The promise that I can do it, with Jesus’ help,
is profoundly comforting.
I mean, with Jesus’ help,
Peter walked on water, became a great advocate for the way of Jesus
even though he denied Jesus three times.
With Jesus’ help, Mary became a witness to the resurrection.
With Jesus help, the Apostle Paul
started a new kind of movement
bridging Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female.
If Jesus can do that,
Imagine what he can do with me.
Sign me up.
But then there’s the Jesus
who shows us how challenging the realm of God is
for all of us, at least when all we know is this realm, this world,
with its challenges and clashes and conflicts.
Easier to shove a camel through the eye of a needle, says Jesus,
than it is for someone-in-love-with-his-money to get into heaven.
Who is my neighbor, Jesus?
Well, let me tell you a story,
about a priest, a Levite, and the guy-you-revile,
and the guy you revile is going to do the right thing at the end,
the noble thing, the good thing,
and then I’m going to ask you to give him credit for that
and to see him as fully human too. Ouch.
And then there’s this,
the reading we have today:
you have heard it said—
an eye for an eye,
a tooth for a tooth…
But I say,
if someone strikes you on your cheek,
turn, and offer the other also;
someone wants to sue you, and take your coat,
well, give them your cloak as well;
if a soldier, one of those occupiers from Rome,
makes you carry his pack a whole mile
don’t stop there…go a second mile,
love your enemies,
pray for your persecutors,
and then if that isn’t enough:
be perfect, as God is perfect.
None of that is even a little bit easy, truth be told.
There are days where
I’d gladly give away all my money to push that camel through that needle
if it meant I didn’t have to acknowledge the-guy-I-revile has some good qualities in him…
and I’d even rather do THAT
than turn the other cheek, give in to the guy suing me,
carry that blasted Soldier’s backpack 10 feet, much less a mile, or two.
It is far easier to nurse our grievances
to separate the world into friends and enemies
to see everything as confrontational
than it is to sign up for Jesus’ challenging way of looking at the world
where everyone is loved
where everyone has responsibilities
where I might be part of the problem, just as much as I’m asked to be part of a solution,
where justice and peace is what God intends for all.
So the question isn’t at all simple:
is following Jesus easy, or is it hard?
I’d rather just linger with that easy Jesus…wouldn’t you?
I think that’s why so many of us
don’t know what to do with texts like this one
from the Sermon on the Mount.
I have a close pastor friend [i]
who ends all of her worship services with a charge—
that is, words of encouragement to go
and do something,
inspired by the reflection of the day—
and with a benediction, or a blessing,
a promise of God’s presence and support
as we try to live out that charge.
We do something similar here, also, every week:
we end with a charge and a blessing.
Whenever I get to worship with my friend,
what I’m struck by
is how she almost always ends her charge
with the phrase: it is all that easy, and all that hard.
It’s all that easy, and all that hard.
Go love your neighbor. No, I mean LOVE your neighbor.
Go take your resources and feed the hungry, clothe the naked, help the poor.
Go forgive not just seven times, but seventy times seven.
Go turn over the tables of those who seek to take advantage of everyday people
just trying to get through their day.
Go turn the other cheek, give your cloak, go the extra mile.
It’s all that easy, and it’s all that hard,
she would say,
putting into words that the answer is complicated.
Anyone who tells you that the demands of following Jesus are easy,
might not be telling you the whole story.
But if you read the whole story,
you know that Jesus is rooting for you.
This isn’t about God testing you, keeping score about what you do.
This is about God trying to make a real difference, here,
and you having a place within that work.
God’s not trying to make you do the impossible, says Jesus,
just help you do something different, holy, God like.
It is important here to stress that God doesn’t keep score,
not in the way you’re used to thinking about it…
There are some who claim that God is like a teacher, proctoring an exam
and that you’re being evaluated for the good that you do
good marks for the good stuff, demerits for what you do wrong.
Without a high enough grade on the exam, you’ll go to the bad place.
And you don’t want to go there.
They’d prefer you see life as a competition, where some are worthy and others are not
and you’re judged on how many points you get on the final.
Can you see how that way of thinking
helps support the very things that Jesus is warning against
here, in our reading from Matthew,
this breaking down into friends vs enemies
the deserving vs the undeserving?
And those who promote this kind of theology often see themselves as the A students,
and other people as the failures…
That makes them feel better, and less likely to see where they’re missing the mark
where they find Jesus to be super easy
rather than seeing the challenge of the Gospel.
But that’s not how God works, according to Jesus.
Here’s the thing: God already loves you.
God already is doing good in your life
and there’s already a seat for you at the heavenly banquet.
Just look at the people Jesus hangs out with…
fishermen, ne’er-do-wells, tax collectors (back in the day, they had a reputation),
not exactly the respected types
do THEY look like the people who are perfect?
And if Jesus saw something in THEM,
surely Jesus can see something in US,
even if none of us are perfect,
if we all fall short,
if we all make mistakes….because we do.
We all miss the mark.
But wait. Didn’t Jesus just tell us to be perfect,
in that reading you just read…
“Be prefect, as your heavenly parent is Perfect.”
Well yes, Jesus did.
It’s all that easy, and all that hard.
Why would Jesus say that?
I think it is because Jesus is offering up a picture
of what some of the challenges are
to bringing about the realm of God in a world like ours,
a world where we struggle with treating one another with compassion
a world where the poor go hungry and system racism remains entrenched.
That sort of world needs people
not just who can serve
but who EMBODY the values of God
even when it is hard to do so,
when it is a challenge
because some people we know, that we love, might not be willing to go there
might not be willing to give up their prejudice or their condescending attitude
or their joy at seeing their political opponents struggle,
and someone needs to take the first step.
This section of the Sermon on the Mount is so challenging
because it asks us to do more, to go further,
to give more than they ask for,
in order to break the cycle of anger and harm that can so often consume us,
that can trap us in a world where we see each other as potential enemies
instead of as siblings in Christ.
Here’s how Steve Eason put it[ii]
in something I read this week:
Key to the passage may be
Jesus’ relentless unwillingness for evil to win,
though it may appear at times to have the lead.
Evil is overcome with good,
not with a stronger version of evil.
Break the cycle, is Jesus’ idea.
Break the cycle with your estranged brother or sister.
Break the cycle with your spouse or child.
Break the cycle with the person at work or a neighbor next door.
With God’s help, you can do it
and be the different one.
Christians are called to be Christlike,
to counter evil with good,
to allow Christ to live through us.
Is Jesus being serious with this?
The truth is, Jesus is being extremely serious.
Extreme evil demands extreme good.
It requires a good that is tenacious.
It requires more than your nominal effort.
You have to go deeper.
This is why Jesus offers the provocative idea
that you may need to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give your cloak,
not because you should let bad people walk all over you,
but because there are other ways to solve problems
than adopting a spirit of revenge.
That ancient law of retribution that this reading starts off with
the lex talonis, an eye for an eye,
was meant to help restrain our human impulse for responding to evil with more evil.
They strike you, you strike them back ten fold.
They take from you, you take even more from them.
To restrain THAT impulse, we have this ancient law, an eye for an eye,
which was meant to dictate proportional action.
You only demand back an amount equal to the harm done to you.
That way, things won’t spiral out of control.
But even that leads to an endless back and forth, tit for tat
Hatfield and McCoy
cycle of behavior that means no one finds peace.
Everyone ends up blind.
Instead, says Jesus, break the cycle.
Fight evil with the Good.
Resist not with more heartache, but resist with hope, with a vision of something better.
Resist not with more heartache, but by striving for God’s perfection.
On Monday of this week
I was checking out the news
and came across some stories about how these protests in our country
following the killing of George Floyd
have been spreading around the world.
One story was about the protests last weekend in London.[iii]
They are more or less like our protests,
people marching to protest systemic racism in general,
and the inordinate application of state violence in communities of color in particular.
The protest there got pretty heated, like some here have been,
and apparently their protests have attracted some people who want to cause trouble
some soccer hooligans
some so-called far right types, as the British press later described them.
And there was a picture going around Monday that was so powerful.
In the middle of London’s protests, a white man is seen injured and on the ground,
and he is surrounded by five or six black men, protestors
who seem to be protecting him, shielding him from harm
and one man, Patrick Hutchinson, lifts him up on to his shoulders
and carries him off to get medical help.
“They created a barrier around him,” Hutchinson would later say,
“and I was the last one to come in.
I scooped him up into a fireman’s carry
and sort of marched him out with the guys…protecting this guy…
I was just thinking of a human being on the floor.
It wasn’t going to end well, if we hadn’t intervened,
and that was it. I had no other thoughts in my mind
apart from getting him to safety.”
“I hope it will change the minds of those who are sitting on the fence,
who aren’t sure about this whole thing.
I hope it can galvanize us as human beings and bring us together.”
The words of someone who saw someone lying there, in need of help,
and decided that he was going to do what he could
to overcome evil with good.
It’s all that easy, and it’s all that hard.
All week, Hutchinson’s action has led to renewed conversation in England
about racial reconciliation, about racial justice, about our shared humanity.
All because he took a step to break the cycle, to not return evil for evil
but, instead, to hold fast to what is good.
How can you, my dear friend,
commit to doing that in these difficult days?
How can I, as I ponder this reading for my own life,
refrain from treating others as simply my enemy
and seek to love them, to ponder their good, as well as my own,
and to act in some way that can take that into account?
If I can reflect on that thought, then just maybe, maybe,
I might be a bit more perfect than I was without it.
And maybe, just maybe, something good may happen
that wasn’t possible before.
So may we not shy away from the challenge of discipleship
but, instead, know that Jesus shows us how we might love one another
and then gives us the courage and the strength to give it a try,
and may we, as a community of people who seek to follow Christ,
rise up to the challenge of committing to strive for justice
in a way that lifts up the dignity and humanity of all.
May it be so.
[i]The Rev. Marci Auld Glass, pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. She reports adapting it from a benediction used by the Rev. Bruce Reyes Chow, who writes about it here: https://breyeschow.typepad.com/faithblog/2006/02/brc_benediction.html
[ii] Steven P. Eason, “Matthew 5:38-48: Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Volume 1, Chapters 1-13. Cynthia A Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, Editors. (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox, 2013), p 115.
[iii] See https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/white-man-saved-by-black-lives-matter-protester-in-london-is-a-former-police-officer/2020/06/18/58792bfa-b156-11ea-98b5-279a6479a1e4_story.html (accessed June 20, 2020)
[iv] See https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/18/man-rescued-by-uk-black-lives-matter-protester-is-ex-police-officer (Accessed June 20, 2020)