Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany February 24, 2019
Here is a question: “What is on your mind when you get up in the morning and look in the bathroom mirror?”. I am usually shocked by how terrible I look—disheveled, dazed, and droopy. Although I am in a pre-coffee state, my mind begins to awaken and I start to think about the coming day. The mind can go over a list of things: things that should have been completed yesterday, what is on the schedule for the day, and for me, what is there to worry about. ( I like that commercial, I am not sure for what, which shows a ‘worry monster’ following someone around.) I do not start the morning with Jesus’ words on my mind, causing me to ask, ‘what enemy can I love today; what good can I accomplish for someone who hates me, and when can I schedule personal time to pray for someone who abused me? If we kept Jesus’ words in mind as we prepare for the day, there would be more healing and less hate, reconciliation instead of revenge, joy instead of judgment.
Our gospel lesson is a continuation of Jesus’ words for his disciples; Jesus began his teaching by delivering the good news, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Jesus spoke in such a way as to turn worldly judgments upside down. For Jesus, the poor are not ignored or invisible, but blessed with the assurance that God seeks to bring change to their world. The kingdom of God, represented by Jesus, reveals a God of mercy who seeks to help and heal those who are poor. The Kingdom of God, or the rule of God, is to be the rule in the hearts of Jesus’ followers, seeking to bring change in an unjust world where so many are left out, down and out, and put out. Jesus would not mince words, the kingdom of God, the way of Jesus, is radically different from judgments and ways of the world.
This was made clear with Jesus’ persistent imperatives: love your enemies, bless those who curse you; if anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and if anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” Jesus spoke what has been called the ‘golden rule’: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
Jesus began by saying, “But I say to you that listen”; and I must say most of us do not. We hear Jesus’ words, and such commands as “love your enemies” are unforgettable, but we fail to take them to heart. It is human nature to strike back, to retaliate, and sink into attitudes of unforgiveness and resentment. Jesus is teaching the Kingdom of God’s way of non-violence. Jesus not only wants to prevent physical violence, but other forms of violence, the violence of our words, using insults and spreading gossip. There is even the violence of silence, where we cut off contact from people we know, and refuse to speak to them, preferring instead to shun them. Indeed, we become angry with people for hurting us and others. And anger is a natural reaction but the danger being that anger begins to rule our lives instead of Kingdom of God.
I know what many of you are thinking: if we follow Jesus’ words we will end up taken advantage of, ripped off, and broke. How can we give to everyone who begs from you, and do not ask for a return of property taken from us? It seems like in the world of the internet, there are all kinds of scammers operating, wanting to take our money. Maybe Jesus was talking only about an ‘ideal world’, the new creation, when God will finally make all things new with no more sin and fear. There is some truth to that, but Jesus was also concerned about the world now, with all its troubles and imperfections. Jesus, I am sure, does not wish any of us to be scammed. Giving to the poor who are hungry is one thing, but to give money to crooks is another—then we become victims of a form of violence. Jesus would have us stand up against that, albeit non-violently. This is the meaning of offering your other cheek, after being struck in the face. A slap on the face was meant to insult and degrade you. Offering the other cheek was a non-violent form of resistance saying “You cannot intimidate or steal away my dignity.” Resist scammers and cyber-bullies—don’t be taken in by them, or allow their insulting words to sink in. Your dignity is God-given. Just think of the promise heard in the Psalm: “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently, do not be provoked by the one who succeeds in evil schemes. Refrain from anger, leave rage alone; do not be provoked, it leads only to evil. Instead commit your way to the Lord, put your trust in the Lord, and see what God will do…” It is said that when provoked, we will naturally either react with fight or flight. But as God’s beloved, may there be another response: faith or as the Psalm counseled “See what the Lord will do.”
On the news we hear that the nation of Venezuela is in turmoil. As many as three million have left the country because they cannot get the basic necessities for life. There was a story in the paper about a group of these refugees walking into neighboring Columbia. I guess they are so poor they have not vehicles for their trek. But as they walk mile after mile, sometimes over rough terrain, they were greeted with unfriendly words and insults—all over the world people fear the coming of refugees. But there was a woman who noticed the feet of the refugees. All too many did not have shoes. But she did something for them. She set up a resting spot on her property… allowing people to rest in safety. She brought out water, and what food she could afford. When a large group of refugees got up to travel again, heading for a city where they hope for opportunity for work, a miracle happened. A flat-bed semi truck stopped. Since his flat-bed was empty, the driver said, “I had to stop and offer them a ride.” This was dangerous for the driver because it was against company policy, and who knows what the police might do. But he said “I had to stop and pick them up.” Here are two simple examples of people who practiced the way of Jesus even when it was against popular thought or a threat to a man’s job. Jesus said “Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, for God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” The Bible says God is love, and here it said God is kind. The work ‘kind’ in the original language is related to the word ‘grace’. God is kind, gracious, giving and forgiving, even to the wicked. Sometimes we get a picture of God who is angry and we fear God’s wrath. But Jesus taught God is merciful, God is kind, and not only to Christians, but even to those who are wicked, and those who do not believe and show not the least bit of gratitude to God. As we know, Jesus would embody, live the mercy of God, revealed in many ways, especially on the cross where he died for us, to make it clear we are forgiven for our sins, and that all condemnations are removed. God is non-violent. Jesus did not call upon avenging angels to destroy the Romans who crucified him. Jesus died to undermine all the world’s violent ways. Jesus would show a better way. It is called resurrection: Jesus rose from the dead to begin a renewed creation; Jesus rose from the dead to be with us, his church, through the Holy Spirit, to bring healing in our lives and communities. The Holy Spirit gives us faith in the ever Faithful One, so we are not provoked into rage and violence, but commit our lives to the Lord and see what God will do.
It is sad to read of the rise of hate groups in our country. There are misguided people who wave the flag and say they are defending American values through violence. So we see how important Jesus’ words are today. His call to love even enemies is based on the good news that God is merciful, and that we are to do to others as we would have them do to us. David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, asked in a recent column, “Are you a weaver, or a ripper?” A weaver is one who strengthens the social fabric of the nation, by loving service that communicates to others their dignity and equality with everyone else. He called it “radical mutuality” saying “we don’t do things for people. We don’t do things to people, we do things with people.” Brooks wrote “Every time you assault and stereotype a person, you’ve ripped the social fabric. Every time you’ve seen that person deeply and made her or him feel known, you’ve woven it.” Jesus was very social, and he wills for his church to be so as well. The columnist wrote about radical mutuality, and Jesus spoke of radical love. As followers of Jesus, let us be weavers, to counter the threat of hatred with the thread of the love of God.