“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matt. 5:38-48 (NRSV)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today, this last Sunday after Epiphany before Transfiguration Sunday next week. This last green Sunday before Lent. Today is the last reading we have from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew until much later this year.
Last Sunday, I laid out how we got to this point. How Jesus, after his baptism, began his ministry of healing throughout the Galilean countryside. How the crowd following him continued to grow. How Jesus moved to a higher place, where he began to teach. And to lay out the vision of God’s kingdom--as set forth in the words of the Beatitudes. A vision so different from the current culture.
And then, from last week’s reading, the examples Jesus gave from the law and the prophets, examples that Jesus reinterpreted for his day. These reinterpreted examples that give us a vision of what it looks like for us to work to carry out that kingdom and to live in relationship with one another. Whether that is one-on-one or more broadly within our community of faith. And we reflected upon how hard, sometimes, living in relationship can be and how important it is to God that we stick around, even in those times when we don’t want to.
Then, we come to our reading for today. Once again, Jesus gives us examples. More examples of ancient laws that he reapplies for his day. Laws that are not narrowed, but reinterpreted for a new time. And, even though reinterpreted, they are laws that have at their very core the same principles of love and reconciliation as those from ancient times.
Today’s examples, unlike last week’s, push us out into the world, beyond the bonds of our community, past the walls of our church. They teach us how to live and respond in the midst of an evil world. They teach us how to respond to our enemies.
Who are your enemies?
Who are the people you hate or who persecute you so much that you call them “enemy?” Who are the people in our world who seem to personify evil?
Who are your enemies?
That’s a hard question, isn’t it?
Last summer, I was teaching 4th, 5th, and 6th graders in Vacation Bible School. At my teaching station, we shared a snack together and, at the same time, wrote thoughts and ideas in our journals. Thoughts and ideas that came out of a discussion of the Bible lesson for each day and from questions that I asked them.
On one particular day, our lesson centered around the verses in Mark 12--those verses that sum up the Ten Commandments--that we are to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and love our neighbor as ourself. To love our neighbor as ourself. It’s the same words that come from the last verse of our Leviticus reading today.
The children and I had a long discussion about who our neighbor was and, as part of it, a broader question about whether our enemies were also our neighbors.
When I asked them the same question I just asked you--”Who are your enemies?”--there was a collective grown. “We’re not supposed to have enemies,” one of them said. “God wants us to love everyone,” said another.
I challenged them to be real. To be honest. To admit that, yes, they had enemies. That we all have enemies. Whether it’s the bully at school, or the bully at work. Whether it’s a terrorist group in the Middle East or a terrorist group here at home. We all have enemies--those people that seem to us to personify evil.
Having enemies is the result of sin and a broken world. Whether it is across the world in another continent. Or right here at home in our backyard. We all have enemies.
So, who are your enemies?
And, going a step further, how are we to respond to our enemies?
In each of the examples in today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches us how to respond to our enemies. How to respond to and resist evil in a non-violent way. Whether it is to offer your other cheek to someone who “slaps you in the face,” someone who seeks to dishonor or humiliate you. Or whether it is the poor person who offers up his undergarments to the one who has already stripped away his outer garments--the creditor who has already taken away everything else. Or whether it is one who is powerless in our world, one who chooses to go one mile further than that already demanded by one with power, the one who sits on a higher rung of the societal ladder. Whatever the example, Jesus teaches us how to respond to our enemies and how to respond to the presence of evil in our world. And that is to resist it in a non-violent way.
In this month of February, as we, as a country traditionally lift up and honor the history and experiences of African-Americans, it is hard not to think of images from the Civil Rights movement. Those images that give us an example of resisting evil non-violently. Whether it is the image of resistance at a Woolworth’s counter, or that of being knocked over by force of water from firehoses in response to a peaceful, non-violent march across the Birmingham bridge, or even the image of the three African-American women at NASA, whose story is captured in the current movie, Hidden Figures--a story of their quiet resistance to evil carried out by a society that sought to keep them from fully using their mathematical genius simply because of the color of their skin.
Whatever the image is, it is through non-violent resistance that evil is exposed. Evil is unmasked. Evil is named as evil. Resistance names what you see, exposes what might not want to be exposed, especially for the sake of someone who is vulnerable.
As we move further in Matthew this year, we will see how angry God gets with a world where people are routinely victimized or made to serve the ends of the more powerful. We will hear that God promises judgment to such a world. And, we will see, how important it is that we, as God’s people and messengers of the Good News, stand with those who are vulnerable and who are on the margins. To be salt and light for the world.
This is the message for us in the Sermon on the Mount. It is a hopeful vision of an amazing world in which there is wholeness and equality, peace and reconciliation. It is a message of shalom. And it is a call for us--the church--to persist. To stick around. To be God’s messengers of this vision and to work with God in bringing this vision of hope to completion in our world.
God, give us the courage and strength to carry out your vision. Amen.
Preached February 19, 2017, at Grace and Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost.
Readings: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-40, 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48.