Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany – February 23, 2014
In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.
Antonia Brenner died last year at the age of 86. Known as the “Prison Angel,” she left a comfortable life in Beverly Hills to minister in a notorious Mexican prison with a population of 8,000—eventually giving away most of her possessions, putting on a homemade nun’s habit and spending more than 30 years living in a cell to be closer to inmates.
La Mesa was a notorious hellhole where rich drug lords ruled the roost while hundreds of their poorer brethren lived in the cold and squalor amid rats and raw sewage, with no beds, food or even lavatory paper unless their relatives brought supplies. Brutalized prison guards contributed to the misery, mistreating the mentally ill and administering cruel interrogations.
Mother Antonia had a neuromuscular disorder called myasthenia gravis and was a twice divorced mother of eight children when she began working with the poor in Mexico in the 1960s. She first began providing basic needs like aspirin and eyeglasses for the prison population. She sang in worship services, got a contract to sell soda to the prisoners, and used proceeds to bail out low-level offenders. She prepared those killed in gang fights for burial. Inmates reported how Mother Antonia once walked into the middle of a prison riot while bullets flew and tear gas filled the air. When the inmates saw her standing there fearless in her habit—the fighting stopped.
At first the Roman Catholic Church declined to give her its support; indeed for many years, as a divorcée she had been unable to take Holy Communion. Early on in her work at La Mesa, she had taken private vows and when the bishops of Tijuana and San Diego heard of her work, they officially accepted her efforts as part of the ministry of the church and at age 50 she was finally a real “sister.” That’s when she moved into the women’s section of the prison to a 10 by 10 foot cell. Her mission constantly expanded from inmates to guards to their families.
“It’s different to live among people than it is to visit them,” she told The Washington Post in 2002. “I have to be with them in the middle of the night in case someone is stabbed, in case someone has a ruptured appendix, in case someone dies.” This was, for her, the “extra mile.”
That’s a pretty radical lifestyle. I confess to you that I could not do that. I suspect not many of us could. In fact, that looks to me like pretty near perfection if we are measuring her life against the standards Jesus seems to set in the continuation of his discourse on the law and affairs of the heart.
Once again, today as last Sunday, Jesus offers a more far-reaching ethic than just keeping commandments, a realm of God-ethic, one already hinted at in the list of beatitudes preceding this discourse. The poor in spirit, those who mourn, the pure in heart–all of these are blessed not because they are exemplars of the law, but because of their inward orientations of heart. The righteousness of this newly launched kingdom of God is more than 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.
Again, Jesus contrasts the former 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.
We need to read them in their proper context and with an understanding of the culture at the time of Jesus. 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 lawsuit over the coat? Jewish men wore two garments: a tunic of linen wool worn close to one’s skin and a heavier 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 lawsuit, 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.
Though we may not make an easy correlation with the examples Jesus uses, his technique 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. We’ll never solve the problem of moral behavior by changing the rules; we have to change what’s in our heart.
The really tough piece of this Gospel is the simple admonition to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Well, it sounds simple but isn’t that a tall order for some people? Can African-Americans love white supremacists? What about the faithful employee laid off just before he qualifies for his pension? Can he love his employer? How easy is it for the mother of a rape victim to love her molester? Or the wife of a drive by shooting victim to love his killer? Can the siblings of the teen who committed suicide because of intense bullying by his peers love the kids responsible for this tragedy? Or can the children of parents brutally murdered in a home invasion love the perpetrators? How simple, how feasible, how doable is that?
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 the wisdom of the world would have us react with aggression and vengeance. And he is telling us not to assume that the only way to deal with a wrong is to get even. Jesus is asking us not to see an enemy as someone to defeat, humiliate, punish, and destroy. 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.
We may be light years away from loving those who have done severe harm to us or to those dear to us, even to those we don’t know but hear about in the news and it might take a while for us just to pray for them even a little. I imagine that did not come any more easily for Mother Antonia. I imagine it may have even taken months or years for her to get from passing out blankets and toiletries to those prisoners at La Mesa to loving them even to death. “When you know in your heart that something is right, she once said, “that it’s who you are, that God is calling you to do something, you make the sacrifices you have to make.”
“It’s different to live among people than it is to visit them,” Mother Antonia said. Isn’t that exactly what Jesus did for us? Live among his people and teach them how to live a better life? 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 share, even to our enemies. That’s the way we become “perfect” as God is perfect.
On paper it all looks pretty good. Hearing it in the Sunday Gospel reading it sounds pretty good. Is there anyone here this morning who thinks that in practice it’s easy? Certainly not me. But because it’s not easy doesn’t mean it’s impossible—by the grace of God.