First Congregational Church May 17, 2015 Seventh Sunday after Easter, Ascension Sunday Matthew 5:38-48 “The Offense of Grace” Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
There’s a nifty Facebook page called Humans of New York. (If you’re into acronyms, that would be HONK.) Every day they write up a little bit of conversation and generally a photo of a random encounter on the street. You never know if it will be a garishly dressed couple or a dapper little boy, a rumpled up homeless person or a father and daughter out on a stroll.
One day this past week, they had a photo of a beautiful, young African American teacher sitting alone on one of her elementary school desks. The blurb that day read, “I tell my class that you can always spot a second grader by how he carries himself. This isn’t first grade anymore. When we have a problem, we aren’t just going to cry about it. We’re going to figure out what we did wrong and how we’re going to fix it. And when we go out in the hallway, we are going to stay controlled, follow directions, and have great posture. Because we want people to know it’s Ms. Washington’s class the moment they see us.” We all realize that the loudest smiles are from elementary teachers.
Our scripture passage for this morning comes from the middle of the great Sermon on the Mount. The entire region has been so ready for the restoration of King David’s line - from the Roman - pagan - government. Jesus has the pedigree to be such a king: lineage, baptism, called disciples, fear of earthly leaders, testing in the wilderness, the stars were probably aligned, too. When a huge assemblage of people come together with the right timing, Jesus begins his most famous sermon by blessing all those that would otherwise be invisible, and begins setting a new bar, a new code of ethics for those that would call themselves his followers.
Scripture: Matthew 5:38-48 38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Thank you, Jim. Unless you think about it, we miss a little layer that Jesus brings up off the get-go of this part of his sermon. If it were a warm day and people were tired, they may have missed it, too. When Jesus referenced the eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth part, that idea - almost verbatim - shows up not once, not twice, but three times in the Jewish Bible - in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. And if the Hebrew people, including Jesus, said anything three times, you’d best pay attention to it. And the great irony is that Jesus turns all of that history and law and organization on its head: “Love Your neighbor and hate your enemy.”
For a long while, I’ve been stashing pieces away, because I’ve been feeling a sermon on hate coming on. And lucky all of you, today is the day I get to lay it down. Part of the reason for this hateful topic comes from the barrage of politics that come at us - newspapers, tv, billboards, family dynamics, you know, life in general. But it’s not just disagreements that’s been pricking my heart, it’s the viciousness, and the seeming inability to tolerate a view other than one’s own. But those negatives have not been the only reasons shoving me on toward this love-hate topic.
I was struck by the ABC News program that told about one of the Cleveland kidnapped victims forgiving her rapist and captor. The Washington Post carried the story of a half dozen young women who escaped Boko Haram and had been sponsored to live in the US. One of the girls, Patience, told about forgiving her captors and abusers, because they didn’t know God, and if they had, they would have realized what they were doing. There are dozens and dozens of stories that tell us about forgiveness, even loving their enemies. How do they do that?
And what about our freedom of speech? Or our free will? When I hear about young girls being kidnapped, or people blowing up innocent victims in the name of God, I want to invoke my God-given free will to engage in some holy butt-kicking, not to mention a little honest-to-goodness justice. And what if those victims were your sons or daughters, your grandchildren or any of our beloved children here? I’m thinking about an inch of the golden rule would go a long way in solving the wrongs of world in the Gospel according to Dinah.
I ran across a TED talk by a gentleman named Zak Ebrahim. Except that isn’t his real name, because he’d changed it, because when Zak was seven, his father helped with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing - and he didn’t want to be like his father. The title of his talk is “I am the son of a terrorist. Here’s how I chose peace.” He cited one of the great observations of all time, said in other ways by other people; about how much negative energy it takes to hold hate inside. How much energy does it take to hold hate inside?
I sincerely don’t mean to doff my own hate, but last week’s sermon wasn’t perhaps one of the worst I’ve written. I say that, because it talked about how to love each other - especially those we don’t like. (To read the sermon, go to fccfrankfort.org, under First Things, to Sermons.) Praying for those we don’t like, whom we don’t even love, for a good night’s sleep - we can probably get to meaning that without too much anguish. But when someone slaps you - even figuratively - or takes from you what was not given to them - then the infraction is so very personal. And that’s when the hair on our back rises up and transforms us into people I don’t think any of us truly want to be. That’s when grace - whether it’s God’s or mine, becomes - offensive.
It would be so much easier if our passage this morning were a parable. Or if it came from one of the letters from Paul, because then they wouldn’t be Jesus’ direct words. But there it is: verse 44. “But I (Jesus) tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Sure wish there was a question mark after that sentence. Or that it came off as a suggestion. But that is how people know to whom we belong. Like the second graders that are identified as belonging to Ms. Washington’s class by how they act, we are identified as belonging to God by how we act, even if we don’t stand as neatly or stay controlled as well as those in Ms. Washington’s class.
So who gets under your skin, who is your enemy, even though we aren’t supposed have enemies as Christians? Who last slapped you on the right check or wanted to sue you? Which political individuals are chapping your hide? There are your assignments to love. And now I’ve probably become one you are adding to that list for whom you have to pray. Ready for Jesus’ little kicker? “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Crap. Because we all are smart enough to realize that this whole thing is not about other people. It’s about us. Our own selves. Your heart. My heart. It’s hard to see, because it happens so much further in this sermon on the mountain, but Jesus said, “everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.” His point is that we do all of what he tells us so that our faith is strong and safe. And while that may be a good thing, I still think Jesus needs to hear that sometimes his plans are just plain hard and maybe even goofy - at least to this heart - which finds itself wanting to extract revenge or perfect retorts way more often than I know that is good for me.
Having nearly two thousand years of living and looking into Jesus’s word, I think most of us would agree that Jesus is not saying that we should do away with penal systems or judicial branches of our lives. But he is calling us to have great (figurative) posture because it’s about growing into reasonable and respectable human beings that walk not as those who don’t know Christ’s way.
One piece of scripture that is becoming more and more a favorite of mine is the one from the book of Ecclesiastes, the one that turned into the great song by the Byrds in the 1960s. And I love the irony that it came up in this week’s “experience” so that I had to look it up again. And catch the last three lines of that famous part. “a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace. Both of these passages about love and hate are necessary to help us see that this topic is not one for after the family reunion that did a little too much celebrating or for getting-to-know-you discussions with the neighbors.
But they are for self-reflection and this little time before the real craziness of the summer kicks in. As someone once said, “Who do you want to be?” Do you/I want to be the person that people shake their head at, muttering something under their breath that includes the word “fool?” Or do you/I want to be the person that people lift their chin to, thinking something that includes the words “real” and God?
I asked you earlier, who gets under your skin? Who is your enemy? Who do you hate? If you should not have anyone that immediately comes to mind, you might then latch on to someone who you know that is hate-full or who has more enemies than just those that come on two legs.
So let us pray. Beloved God, we come to you this day with some very specific people and/or situations. And we say those names in our hearts and minds in this moment of silence. ___ Give each of those people a good night’s sleep. We all operate much better when we have good sleep, so help our individuals sleep well tonight. And us, too. And help those individuals find a moment of joy tomorrow, that it may ease their pain or sorrow or anger or whatever, if even just for a moment.
But more importantly, Giver of Grace, help us to look at how we act as your children - physically, mentally and spiritually. Help us to see that which we’d rather not see, that we can set about to be the people you have always see us to be. Help us to see your grace not as an offense, but as a gift, that you give all of us, because your love is so much more than we can even begin to imagine. And all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.