Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 19, 2017

2017.02.19 “Choosing Life, Part 2 – Matthew 5: 33 – 48

Central United Methodist Church
Choosing Life, Part 2
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 5: 33 – 48
February 19, 2017

loveyourenemies

 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’  But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.  And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.  Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

 “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.”

– Matthew 5: 33 – 48, The New Revised Standard Version

 

One of the Great Americans who died last year was Harper Lee, who wrote the 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, now an essential part of a good education.

 To Kill a Mockingbird was a great book turned into a great movie and there are many great scenes, but there is one scene that is particularly hard to sit through, and that is this one, where Bob Ewell, Atticus Finch’s accuser (and the likely perpetrator of the crime), spits in Atticus’ face. [Video]

In such a situation, what should we do, what would you do? Most of us know what we would do: we would teach Bob Ewell a lesson, about how not to call people names or spit in people’s faces. But in so doing, we would likely perpetuate the cycle of violence, possibly inviting worse consequences.

How many of us would even have the moral strength to do what Atticus did: at first, like us, to move toward Ewell, but then restrain himself and walk away, a bigger man than ever. Atticus did the right thing, which would have longer lasting and greater consequences.

It is just such moral strength that Jesus asks of us today, in what is surely the most challenging section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the famous six antitheses: “You have heard it said, but I say unto you,” regarding six representative issues: anger, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and love for enemies. Last Sunday, we considered anger, adultery, and divorce; today we consider oaths, retaliation, and love for enemies. Last Sunday we looked upon practicing these virtues as a way of “choosing life,” not only for ourselves but for others; likewise, not to do so diminishes life, not only for ourselves but for others.

The phrases in this section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount are so familiar and beautiful that sometimes we forget how demanding they are: “Turn the other cheek.” “Go the second mile.” “Love your enemies.”  “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  How lovely, yet how impossible!

I imagine Jesus’ initial hearers saying: “But we live under a brutal occupation by the Romans. You expect us to take it, to do whatever they say, without standing up or fighting back?”

In our time, I think of African-Americans suffering racial discrimination, Japanese Americans and Holocaust survivors with tattooed numbers from internment, Hispanic Americans being detained, victims of abuse, women who make less than men doing the same job; LGQBT people sometimes denied even basic rights. In short, all who suffer at the hands of oppressors. Surely, to them, Jesus’ call to forgive and to reconcile and even pray for their oppressors, rings hollow, and sounds like resignation to evil.

Let’s face it, especially right now in our society, it is easier to be mean, to bully, to hold grudges, to ignore those in need. After all, if we give to everybody who begs, we will have nothing left for ourselves. If we turn the other cheek, we will get slapped again. If we are sued, we will hire the best lawyer we can afford to fight back. If we love our enemies, we will be persecuted or killed. If we are nice, we’ll be weak, pushovers, doormats. Are we to take Jesus seriously? Taken at face value, I don’t think Jesus’ teachings would get him elected dogcatcher right now.

Through the centuries, preachers have reassured Christians, “Don’t worry, these phrases are figures of speech.” They are “ideal rules of the kingdom not practical in the real world;” an ethic for somebody other than us. And congregations have collectively sighed: “Thank God; I was afraid Jesus actually meant for us to practice them!”

But doesn’t he? With what we know about Jesus, does he sound like he is pretending? If anything, Jesus is doubling down on previous ethical teaching. As I said last week regarding anger, adultery, and divorce, it is not enough to meet the minimum daily requirements. It is not enough to say: “No murder today; check! No adultery; check!” The last time I looked, I was still married; check! In each case, Jesus BEGINS with the legal standard, but extends and transcends it’s meaning. What God asks of us is not “rule keeping,” but genuine moral and spiritual transformation.

Today Jesus elaborates on three additional issues: the swearing of oaths, non-retaliation, and loving not just our neighbors, but even our enemies.

Jesus is not talking about swearing, at which we may or may not be proficient, but the swearing of oaths, like when we place our hand on a Bible and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, “so help us God.” Jesus is saying that, on the contrary, if we are simple and clear and truthful in all our speech, as God desires us to be, then it would not be necessary to swear oaths by all that is holy that we promise to tell the truth, THIS TIME. It sounds simple, but if you haven’t noticed, truth is an endangered species these days.

It’s the same with retaliation, striking back, walking the extra mile, blessing and not cursing. If we humble ourselves, no one can humiliate us. If we give away our coat, no one can take it from us. If we choose to walk that extra mile, no one can force us. When we are in control of ourselves, no one can have power over us. It is a moral power, the likes of which the world has rarely tried; but when it has, it has produced results such as the world has rarely seen.

Mohandas Gandhi thought so highly of the Sermon on the Mount that it influenced his nonviolent strategy against the British in India. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement demonstrated how powerful nonviolence and non-retaliation can be in affecting social change. The images of those who marched in Birmingham and Montgomery, who faced snarling dogs and fire hoses, who rode buses through the south, who integrated lunch counters – even as they were physically and verbally abused without responding in kind – are profiles in courage as certain as any soldier who ever served in combat.

But Jesus continues: “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.” This is hard, especially when our eyes are filled with tears and our hearts are filled with anger. Don’t you find that we stumble over it, every Sunday in our prayers? When we struggle to pray, not just for our theoretical enemies, but for our real enemies, not only the people who make us angry, but those who would seek to hurt us? This is hard.

Why should we do it? For three reasons. First, though not mentioned in the text, there is the issue of what holding hate does to us. As Dr. King once put it in a sermon on loving your enemies:

“Hate at any point is a cancer that gnaws away at the very vital center of your life and your existence. It is like eroding acid that eats away the best and the objective center of your life. So Jesus says love, because hate destroys the hater as well as the hated.” (Loving Your Enemies, November 17, 1957)

Secondly, when we pray for someone, they become less our enemy and more someone for whom we might have empathy, even compassion, someone who we might be able to love.

But the most important reason – named in the text – is this: Because – says Jesus – this is who God is, and this is what God does. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

As beautiful and as challenging as it is, the Sermon on the Mount is a portrait of the heart of God: God who loves the unlovable, comes among us in Christ, suffers our worst, and rises to forgive us. Turn the cheek, give the cloak go another mile, lend, love the enemy — because that is how God loves. If we want to follow this God, fleshed out in Jesus, we are adopted into a life in which – before we know what we are doing – we find ourselves loving this way.  (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, Jason Byassee, p. 382)

Did Jesus live this way? Yes, he did. Said the ancient Christian teacher, Hilary of Poitier: “The Lord who accompanies us on our journey offers his own cheek to slaps and his shoulders to whips, to the increase of his glory.”

Can we do it, especially in this time of polarization and vilification, can we dig down deep, summon the better angels of our nature, practice non-violence, and respond to antagonists with love? Can we turn the other cheek, not respond in kind, forgo revenge, give more than required, go the extra mile, give to all who beg, lend without limits, greet the stranger, love the enemy, and pray for our persecutors? Could we even do what Atticus Finch did? What would happen if we do?

Nobody can say what might happen as powerfully as Dr. King did. In a sermon entitled “Loving Your Enemies,” as far back as November 17, 1957 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. King said:

“So this morning, as I look into your eyes, and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you, “I love you. I would rather die than hate you.” And I’m foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed. And then we will be in God’s kingdom. We will be able to matriculate into the university of eternal life because we had the power to love our enemies, to bless those persons that cursed us, to even decide to be good to those persons who hated us, and we even prayed for those persons who despitefully used us.”

Can we do it? With God’s help – and only with God’s help – I believe we can. As a follower of Jesus, I’m going to be working on it and I know you will too.  Amen.

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