Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany – February 20, 2011
In the name of God: creator, enlightener, and sanctifier. Amen.
It happens every Sunday. The organ breaks into a hymn and a procession forms and moves from the High Altar through the chancel and into the midst of the congregation. Incense leads the way leaving behind trails of holy smoke that rise in honor of the sacred book that is carried by the deacon—lifted high above for all to see.
Candles glow as symbols of the Light of Christ that we anticipate will spring forth from the Word of God about to be proclaimed in the Gospel. We chant “Glory and praise to you, Lord Christ” and the Book of Gospels is censed in Trinitarian form, signed with a cross and kissed at the conclusion of the reading—all acts of honor and even deep affection: holy drama that underscores the profound mystery of what is taking place in our midst.
But then there’s the kind of message we’ve just received today, the supposedly “good news.” Yes, sometimes we are comforted, encouraged, even elated by what Jesus has to say. We are invited to come to him with our burdens, seek what we need, find the peace for which we long. We hear wonderful stories about a Good Shepherd, a Prodigal Father, and a Good Samaritan.
Then there are Sundays like last week and 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 heard last Sunday and what we hear today may be disturbing.
Let’s revisit, for example, his reproach about divorce. How did that one grab you? Let’s parse that for a minute. Does Jesus want us to honor the commitment we make in our relationships and the promises we make to one another when we enter into them? Absolutely. Does he expect us to stay in committed relationships that are abusive, unhealthy, even destructive? Certainly not. And what about the scary stuff about plucking out our eyes and cutting off our hands if they cause us to sin? Does anyone here think Jesus wants us to do that? I hope not!
But does he want us to take seriously his commandment to love one another and, in loving one another, to respect and honor the whole person, not to exploit one another, to deal honestly in our business transactions, to feed the hungry and care for the poor, to forgive those who have wronged us, to seek forgiveness from those we have wronged, to welcome the stranger? A thousand times “Yes” and, because he deems all this so important, he exaggerates a tad—well, maybe more than a tad!
Today we hear concrete examples about things like not giving into revenge but we need to read them in their proper context and with an understanding of the culture at the time of Jesus. For example, in those days, a strike on the right side of one’s cheek represented a backhanded, demeaning slap by a superior person to a second-rate person. It was a blow to one’s dignity and carried more insult than physical harm. Turning “the other” or left cheek would require the assailant to use the fist of the right hand—an act that actually acknowledged the person one slapped as an equal. So turning the other cheek denies the aggressor’s power to humiliate and dehumanize the other.
And the law suit over the coat? Jewish men wore two garments: a tunic of linen worn close to one’s skin and a heavier wool one over it. The outer garment was protected by the Law and could not be required as security for a loan. So, if in this law suit, the debtor was forced to give up his tunic and his cloak—he would be stark naked and, because it was shameful to look upon another’s nakedness, the creditor would have brought shame on himself.
Now you may well be thinking, “OK. So that’s the way it worked in first century Palestine and all this made sense to them. But what does any of this mean for us?” Though we may not make a connection with the specific examples Jesus uses, his technique is the same for his original audience and for this one—to startle his listeners with the unexpected, to get our attention. What Jesus was trying to get across last week in his message was, as Mother Stravers said in her sermon, “What we do matters; what we thinks counts.”
He expands on that message today by presenting a radical approach to reconciliation—a word that literally means “to meet again” and repudiates the age old principle of retaliation of “an eye for an eye” and “a tooth for a tooth.” Instead, he offers to us a new principle of responding to harshness with kindness—something that goes against the grain of common sense and is totally countercultural.
But the church is countercultural and its mission is all about reconciliation—bringing people together, to meet again, to mend broken relationships, to heal, to reflect God’s spirit in all aspects of our lives through justice, compassion, and radical hospitality.
Turning the other cheek, giving your cloak, going the extra mile, and giving generously are metaphors—something that casts new light on an otherwise abstract idea—metaphors for the extravagant love God has for us and asks us to offer, even to our enemies. That’s the way we become “perfect” as God is perfect. Is there anyone here this morning who thinks that’s easy? I suspect not.
But when we gather here on Sunday, raise our voices in song, when we pray for one another, when we come forward to stand at God’s Table and partake in the sacred meal God offers us, can we see in all of it the truth that we’re not just another club of people who try to get along? We are the church whose foundation is Jesus Christ, the nearest image of God we’ll ever know until we come into the Kingdom and that God in Christ loves us enough to want us to grow together, to be the best that we can be, do the best that we can do, and, while not necessarily always taking the Gospel literally, to take it seriously.
The ritual surrounding the proclamation of the Gospel that we observe every week and in which we participate is another way to get our attention—to remind us who we are called to be, what we are called to do, that, in the week ahead, what we do matters, what we think counts, how we respond to others and how we act in the challenging situations that we may face can and does make a difference.
A rabbi once asked his students, “When is it at dawn that one can tell the light from the darkness?” One student replied,
“When I can tell a goat from a donkey.” “ No,” The rabbi replied.
Another said, “When I can tell a palm tree from a fig.” Again the rabbi answered, “No.”
Well, then what is the answer?” his students asked with great eagerness. Only when you look into the face of every man and woman and see your brother and your sister,” said the rabbi, “Only then have you seen the light. All else is still darkness.”
That, in a nutshell, is what Rabbi Jesus tells us this morning.