A Tall Order from Jesus – February 19, 2017

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Sermon Preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany
February 19, 2017

In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.

Let’s just say the weather last Sunday spared us all from not the easiest of Gospels to preach or listen to. Then there is this morning’s passage. Sometimes on a Sunday we are comforted, encouraged, even elated by what Jesus has to say. We are invited to come to him with our burdens, ask for what we need, find the peace for which we long. We hear wonderful stories about a Good Shepherd, a Prodigal Father, a Good Samaritan, and many healings.

Then there are Sundays like today when what Jesus has to say makes us want to scratch our head, cover our ears, or even stomp our feet in protest. Preached by Jesus at the end of his famous Sermon on the Mount, what we hear today may be disturbing yet it is probably very relevant for contemporary life circumstances. This passage contains some of the most difficult sayings of Jesus. In it, he stretches our imaginations beyond literal interpretation of the Old Testament commands.

Jesus offers a more far-reaching ethic than just keeping commandments. The righteousness of this newly launched kingdom of God is more than about following rules. It requires and empowers a life yielded to God and neighbor. Jesus wants us to really pay attention to what is in our heart for that is where it all begins. He contrasts the former Hebraic law with the new interpretation he brings to the table. Each of the concrete examples he offers about not demanding an eye for an eye, turning the other cheek, giving up your coat and cloak is based on legal precedent in Hebrew Law.

Though we may not make an easy connection with the examples Jesus uses, his strategy and purpose is the same for his original audience and for us—to get our attention. What Jesus is trying to get us to see is that our behavior begins in the heart. The way we do something and why we do it is as important as what we actually do. The motive and the deed are inseparable.

The really tough piece of this Gospel is the admonition to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. That seems like a very tall and maybe unrealistic order. Can the parents of the children killed in Sandy Hook love their shooter? Can African-Americans seeing an emerging trend of neo-racism love white supremacists? Can LGBTQ people love lawmakers who want to shove them back in the closet? Can the longtime employee who gets laid off just before he qualifies for his pension love his employer? Can the mother of a rape victim love her child’s molester? Can the parents and siblings of the teen who died by suicide after intense bullying love the kids responsible? Can you add to this list? How simple, how feasible, how doable is all that…love?

Now be clear about this: Jesus isn’t telling us to be a door mat. He isn’t telling us to ignore wrong doing. He isn’t saying we should not respond to hurt. He doesn’t propose that we should turn our back on oppression, injustice, and violence in the world. He is saying that we should not react the way typically the world would have us react—with aggression and vengeance.

And he is telling us not to assume that the only way to deal ween someone wrongs us is to get even. Jesus is asking us not to see an enemy as someone to defeat, humiliate, punish, and destroy. He offers us to a new principle of responding to harshness —something that goes against the grain of common sense and is totally counter-cultural.

In Jesus’ day there were no courses in assertiveness training, no anger management classes. There were fists, stones, swords, and even crosses available to press the point ever-present in all ages: “I want my way and isn’t it terrible that I’m not getting what I want; and whoever is causing me deprivation will have hell to pay.” What do we make of this Gospel in this angry age we live in today—in which people are so terribly at odds with one another?

There was a time when a passage like this was interpreted as God’s desire for us to be passive in the face of power and repressive authority—a conspiracy of letting us think that we should bear with abuse or being used by those with power over us, maybe even enduring a relationship that is killing our spirit or tolerating offensive behavior towards us by turning the other cheek. Jesus did not teach peace and justice at any price.

The Hebrew Scriptures attest that God protected the oppressed, the poor, children, strangers, and the marginalized. This just doesn’t mesh with a Jesus who would suggest that when someone hits you just turn the other cheek so they can knock you on your butt. What is Jesus saying? We know that he never taught submissiveness in the face of evil and he never taught violence as the right reaction to evil.

Maybe he’s telling us that we do our enemies good by resisting evil, not by running away and letting them think they have won. We love our enemies when we show them how unjust they are being and when we give them the opportunity to grow and learn from their behavior and attitude and to be open to God’s grace to change their aggressive and unjust and oppressive ways.

The time was 1947. Fighting had broken out between Hindus and Muslims. Calcutta, Delhi, and Bombay were in a state of emergency, and the troops could not contain the violence. Gandhi went on a near-fatal fast in an effort to encourage the end of hostility. Some Muslim fighters came to him as he lay on his bed, and set down their swords to show that they wanted peace.

Then a wide-eyed Hindu man burst into his room, threw a piece of bread at Gandhi, and shouted: “Here, eat! Eat! I am going to hell but not with your death on my soul!”

Gandhi quietly replied: “Only God decides who goes to hell.”

But the man protested: “I killed a child. “Why?” Gandhi asked.

He choked out the words: “They killed my son.”

Gandhi looked at him and said: “I know a way out of hell. Go and find a child whose mother and father have been killed…and raise him as your own…Only be sure that he is a Muslim and that you raise him as one.”

The law of love that Jesus offers us is about transforming people, not merely settling disputes. When wisdom and love bond together, there is no stronger force. Jesus is in no way implying that any of this is easy. But in a world where there is a lot of fake Christianity being marketed, we need to go directly to the source to get it right. We heard from him this morning.

Categories: Sermons