February 19, 2017
We talk a lot about love in the Christian faith. Today through Matthew’s voice we hear from Jesus what love is to look like. For here we continue from last Sunday the end of the Sermon on the Mount, the center of Jesus’ value system. It is, once again, full of hard sayings for apparently, love is hard work:
“Love your enemies;
If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;
If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well;
If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”
These are lofty goals, an amazing ethic, calling us far beyond how we usually see people acting, including sometimes ourselves. What a great reminder of what a life lived as a disciple of Jesus is to take shape.
Some of you are aware that I was just recently in the Diocese of El Salvador, meeting with the rest of the Board of Trustees of a human rights organization called Cristosal. The people of El Salvador continue to struggle for the basic norms of justice that you and I might take for granted. While there, I am often reminded of the part of the terms of amnesty after the civil war, not unlike what was negotiated in South Africa, where people who committed horrible crimes of violence were not prosecuted, all in order to be able to live into a new future for the good of the country. The desire for vengeance, the settling of scores, was set aside.
Or perhaps you recall the account of an occurrence in the Amish community of Pennsylvania a few years ago, when an Amish woman was murdered by an Amish man, who then took his own life. It is the Amish belief that by the teachings of Jesus, they are not to do anything in response that stirs up feelings of anger or vengeance. An expert in Amish culture said, “They have a deep sense of comfort, assurance that things are in God’s hands and in the long run all will turn out okay. If something like this happens, we try to accept it as it comes and move on.” As another Amish man said, “Sympathy must also go to the killer. We feel sorry for that person because they could not help themselves and have not yet come to the light.” It was reported that the husband and family of the woman also offered forgiveness and hope for the man’s restitution.
And of course we can point to Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church right down the road in Charleston, where not long after the horrible slayings of those dear nine people, we heard from the families words of forgiveness extended toward Dylan Roof, the killer.
If these stories raise uncomfortable feelings and huge questions for you, then you begin to get as sense of what Jesus’ hearers may have been thinking and feeling when they heard his teaching, which almost certainly violated their sense of evening the score: you know, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. But as someone has said, true justice is love in action. In El Salvador, in the Amish community, and among the families of Mother Emanuel, we see people, sometimes in fits and starts, trying to live in a higher way, with an ethic that goes beyond the ordinary. Maybe this is an unsettling thought, but it is the way to which we once again commit ourselves in the renewal of our baptismal vows today and reaffirm in the reception taking place.
Yes, love is hard work! The tendency is to want to get even. Forget for a moment the huge examples of violence I just gave you. We experience this in small ways too, like when a person steps in front of us in a line; or when we get cut off by a car and wish we had a button on the steering wheel with which to vanquish the person who did it to us; or when a neighbor behaves in a manner we don’t like and we want to get them back in some way.
Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom, his way of loving given to us today, is not about passivity or being the proverbial doormat. It is about leveling out the exercise of power and dominance over one another, calling you and me to a way we’re often not ready to hear much less put in place in our life. Therein lies my struggle – it is the Christian’s call to stand not only with the victims of our world, and here’s the rub, but also with the unforgivable, the condemned and the hated. Why? Because this is what Jesus embodied in his life. It cost him his life and he forgave them even as they were executing him. “If you love those who love you, what reward is that?” NO big deal in other words. What about loving those who are impossible to love?
What we see in Jesus is a bringing forth of the reign of God right into the midst of the contested arena of human life. People who start to live this way may seem odd, even deluded. It will be alien to popular opinion, perhaps even threatening. It doesn’t get votes. Maybe you find yourself resisting Jesus’ hard sayings right now. Yet we know on some level it is the better way, for it is the way of Jesus transforming the world for hope, reconciliation and liberation.