Sermon of the Week
Neighbors and Enemies
Keywords: Pray for Enemies, Lex Talonis, Eye for an Eye, Didache, Anselm, Sermon on the Mount.
A few weeks ago, I started receiving a lot of requests for help with prayer.
Specifically, people wanted to talk about praying for our enemies.
Last week, we talked a bit about Karl Barth’s argument
that our task in this hour is to engage God
with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other…
and so it is maybe timely that the lectionary takes us through
the Sermon on the Mount these days,
and, in particular, some of these hard sayings of Jesus.
They’re hard, because they’re not really possible.
Be Perfect, as your Heavenly Father is Perfect… teaches Jesus.
When we, each of us, know just how imperfect we can often be.
We’ve jumped forward a little bit,
but since our reading last week,
which, you may recall,
was about being Salt, to give flavor and texture and grit and goodness to the world,
and it was about being Light, bearing God out into dark places,
so that God’s compassion and love may shine,
and focusing on God’s ideal for our faithful practice:
feeding the hungry, helping the homeless.
Last week, we heard, that in doing this,
it will be like having water given to us, and to the world,
when we’ve been parched.
It will make our bones strong.
That was last week.
Jesus also said, then, that he’s not really come to make our life easier, per se,
if by that we think that we get some sort of “free pass” from God’s law.
Not one iota, says Jesus.
God still has expectations for us,
because God is striving for that still perfect world, right
one where the poor and the homeless will no longer struggle
where lion and lamb shall graze together
where human beings will live in harmony with each other…
And then Jesus offers six examples.
These are often called “antitheses,”
because Jesus starts each one “you have heard it said that…”
and then he outlines conventional wisdom,
the understanding, at that time, of a piece of the ancient law of Moses.
And then Jesus turns them upside down.
You’ve heard it said: don’t murder.
Great. But don’t be angry, either.
Adultery, no good. Don’t do that.
But don’t look lustfully at another person, either.
Divorce. Swearing Oaths.
Be careful how you posture yourself,
as if you feel confident that you’re in the right
when we all know we fail to keep our word in some respects,
that we participate, consciously or even unwillingly,
in imperfect care and love for one another.
There’s a whole sermon or two for these antitheses,
and I don’t want to get too off track,
but the main point here is that there really isn’t a way to perfectly follow any of this.
I was lost at the angry part.
I read a sermon from an acquaintance of mine on this passage[i]
that talked in familiar and exquisite detail
about being a parent of young children
and the anger that her kids’ toys caused within her
mainly noise they generated.
So she shared a confession that she was “a bad parent,”
because before she gave those toys to her kids for the first time
she removed all the batteries before they knew what they could do…
except for those toys with batteries that are not replaceable
(she mentioned something about a Bob the Builder handheld thing
that would repeat “Can we Fix it?” and “I can Dig it” over and over and over again)
or, worse, toys that made noise but had no batteries
like these little ducks that you would pull behind you
and as they waddled along would go “quack quack quack quack…”
My friends Cat found these quite amusing,
often at 3 in the morning.
Her point was that being perfect feels well nigh impossible in that situation
not to mention anger
and we’re not even getting into any of the other challenging aspects
of relationships we might build with one another with integrity…
The sermon on the mount asks us to be perfect,
even as we know we will, and do, fall short.
We have a tendency to want to soften all of this,
to explain some of it away,
to render it less impactful or critical,
and maybe that was what Jesus was warning about
when he was saying not one iota…
although, let’s be clear,
we human beings have still found a way to take all of this, as it is offered,
and make it worse
like when we have heard it as some sort of critique of human intimacy
that attraction is a bad thing, human desire,
concupiscence, to use the fancy word that Augustine would have used,
lust, as it is translated here,
instead of what it is really saying
about the ways in which our acting on that natural and good human desire
sometimes can break the relationships and promises
that people have made to one another
through marriage or partnering or some other such arrangement,
and the damage that often follows in its wake.
Or we’ve heard the parts of Jesus’ sermon that we read today:
do not resist an evil doer
if anyone strikes you, turn the cheek again
are they suing you, give them your cloak,
that soldier wants you to go a mile, go two…
and someone, somewhere offered up a little smile
and said: well look at that,
if I decide to work some evil
if I strike them,
or sue them
or make them walk….what recompense are they going to have…?
Hear this: this passage is not about letting your abuser abuse you,
or letting the person doing evil getting away with it.
I don’t say that to minimize the impact of these teachings,
but, instead, to say as clearly as I can that
when we read it that way
we’ve missed the point,
and we’ve allowed those
who want to take advantage of the hurting
or to expand their own power
to make it even worse. [Read more…]