|"Reconciliation" - Coventry Cathedral|
What do we really think of Jesus’ words? If he walked in here today stood in front of us and said them to us outloud, how would we react? Would we think him weak? Idealistic? Impractical? Would we consider him harsh, demanding, out of touch with real life?
It’s hard to consider this as unrealistic as I might normally when just last week, through mostly nonviolent means, the people of Egypt overthrew a 30 year rule. Standing together, praying together, camping together, refusing to back down but not resorting to violence. It’s hard to call this totally impractical when this very passage inspired Ghandi’s non-violent resistance – who said “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
When Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement that brought such an astounding change to our nation were so informed by these words, it gives them some credibility on the large scale, which is all well and good, but leaves me a little at a loss with what to do with them in my own life.
I have the privilege of knowing a few truly, deeply honest people. People of fearsome integrity who need their lives and their words to mean something. So when they read something like this: be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect – it really upsets them. They’re unable to explain it away or ignore it or pretend they didn’t read it. They can’t just see it as a nice religious pipe dream, a goal to aim for but never actually consider achieving, like most of us might. They can’t use historical context or rhetorical style to excuse what it seems to be demanding, or consider it broad guidelines for a peaceful revolution that don’t speak directly to you and me. This kind of scripture really messes with them. These people really think it should mean something when Jesus says to turn the other cheek or go the extra mile.
We’ve been talking about the bible for several weeks in Adult Ed, and we have learned that the lens you read scripture with will shape what you get from it. So try on this lens, which some of us may have had at some point in our lives. What if the whole point of this faith, the central claim, the goal of it all was this: God is in charge and God wants people to be good. And God is punitive. God is harsh and judging. God has high standards and most of us will not make it. But we’re supposed to try anyway.
So turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, pray for your enemies, and be perfect. Be the impossible. Be good because God is good. You’ll most likely fail, but you’re supposed to die trying. And then hopefully God will make up the difference and let you in in the end anyway.
That’s how one lens might read it. Does read it. But we can’t read this as a command to be the impossible, as some unreachable goal we aim for and hope for the best because we have a different lens. We’ve pretty much agreed that the central claim of all of scripture, the purpose of it, in fact, that which Jesus embodies in the flesh and speaks of with his words, that which the disciples proclaim and gospel authors write, and the Old Testament stories explore and the New Testament letters explain and church communities throughout time are founded upon and our whole faith revolves around is this:
God loves us. God wants a relationship with us. God creates and sustains and empowers life so that God can be in relationship with God’s creatures and God’s creation. And God wants us to be in relationship with each other that reflects this love.
So this passage isn’t saying be good or God will get you. It is saying be love because God is love. This scripture is another stanza in this lengthy teaching –we are still in the Sermon on the Mount here, that began with the Beatitudes, blessed are the brokenhearted for they will be comforted! - another in a long line of Jesus talking about what life really is, about what it means to really live, about the kingdom of God that upholds the weak and cares for the poor – the kingdom where all people are loved and respected, and each person is fully, wholly, completely human. The kingdom of love we now are to live out.
Be perfect, it says. Not American, perfectionistic, I’s dotted and T’s crossed, botoxed, honor roll, pageant perfect. It comes from the Greek word, telos or goal, end, completion. Be complete, be whole, be fully you, just as God is fully God. Have the same goal – that is love and connection – that God has. Live in God’s fullness.
We live half-way much of the time. We demand respect but don’t respect others. We rank and judge people and think some deserve things others don’t. We keep track of the wrongs done to us, and hurt those who hurt us. We limit our own humanity and that of others because we are consumed with fairness, and we know how to look out for number one even at the expense of anything or anyone else. An eye for an eye keeps us in check because we’re more likely to rip off the whole face.
But what would it be to live so secure in our life and the love of God that when someone slapped you on the cheek you could look them in the eye, and then offer them your other cheek as well? That when someone sued you for the shirt off your back you’d give them your coat also. Here! Might as well take this too. It’s a matching set!
What does such an astounding and unexpected response do to the whole fabric of the situation? How does it change both people involved?
Two weeks ago the session headed to ARC Retreat Center for our annual retreat. Surrounded by the majesty of tall creaking trees and the stillness of the snow, we sat by a fire with mugs of hot coffee and tea and pondered what it means to live in God’s welcome. We talked about what it is to really welcome one another each time and every time, mutually, authentically. Not to take each other for granted. Not to act as though we had anything to lose. To be generous, open, honest, trusting, seeing each other, hearing each other, recognizing and appreciating each person for who they are and not just the role they play. What would we be, we wondered, if we really deeply embodied God’s hospitality? What power is there in that for this little community? For the world?
Last weekend I was in Atlanta to baptize little Sloan Elizabeth Flemming. I looked out on a congregation of people making vows to this child, vows that, let’s be honest, most of them wont do anything about keeping.
I put the water on her head, and it was just water, wet and messy and a little cold, nothing magical about it. I spoke words over her, just words, ordinary, human words, nothing powerful, no incantations or charms. And we prayed for her. We asked God to do something.
And that’s the thing. We are just human beings. We are not in this alone. On our own it’s a pointless ritual, this baptism, a mime, a mockery even. On our own it’s a lie. Death will get you. There is nothing more than this life, that we have to offer. Violence is powerful and atrophy and disease and decay are part of the order of things, and relationships fall apart and people betray you and this community making promises to you will fail you at some point or another, and you will let yourself down time and again, and life has got some pretty awful surprises up its sleeve, and we are all play-acting if we stand around that font and think that what we are doing has the power to change any of that.
But we prayed, and we asked God to do something, and we believe God does something, because it’s not about us. It’s not up to us. This message, here, today, is not about us. Jesus, sitting among his disciples, pounding it into them - Matthew just packing all these things together in the world’s longest, most dense sermon- like if we just keep saying it in different ways it might eventually sink in.
I am telling you about a different way of being! A different way of living! A way that is not like this world, and not naturally within you, and not like anything you could dream up. I am telling you about what God is up to. God is making a world where the blind can see and the lame can walk and the powerless are made strong and justice is real and hope is shared by all and people are free to be fully alive, to love God and one another unabashedly.
And you can be part of that now! Even now, in this life where people hit you and sue you and talk only to their friends and hate their enemies really well – you can be part of what God is up to by refusing to participate in that reality. It looks like this:
You may hit me if you choose, but I will not hit you back, I will not spit on your or call you names. I will not cower from you. I will offer you my other cheek, and in this way I will choose my role, not you, and not fear. I choose to use my power differently than you are using yours. I will meet you and you will meet me. I am not defined by this moment, but by something greater.
If you take something from me, I will give you even more. I will not live as though life is filled with scarcity and dread, pitting us against one another to survive. Instead I will live in abundance, having what I need, and you will have to see me, to deal with me; I will give you my cloak and you will have to reach out your hand to take it from mine. Human to human. You are not defined by this moment, but by something greater.
What would it look like if one, two, ten, a hundred, a thousand, a whole community, a movement or a nation, the Church of Jesus Christ in the whole world, began practicing this? This kingdom of God living, this upside down and inside out, illogical love-driven living?
If nobody hits back, what would happen to the hitting? If everybody is giving things away, what stealing can there be? If people go around praying for each other, could there hardly be an enemy left? Because how can you imagine God holding someone, how can you ask God to care for someone, to see and hear them, and not begin to see and hear them yourself? To see the ways you are both connected? To hear the struggles you share, to recognize the humanity that comes out for each of you in broken ways?
You’re not going to get this right every time. In fact, most of the time you’ll slap that cheek right back before you’ve realized what you’re doing, and then you’ll have to apologize all over the place. But there is hope here for us because it is not about us. There is hope for the world because God loves the world. God is loving the world. Jesus is here today, among us, between us, with us and for us.
Be whole, live in God’s fullness, exist in God’s love the way God does. It’s an invitation. It’s a possibility. It’s a prayer. God, help us to live your kingdom of love! And let it change us. Let it change the world.