Sisters and brothers in Christ, this reading today is the last installment of Jesus’ sermon on the mount. We’ve been hearing parts from this sermon all month. It started with those great beatitudes. Jesus started with blessing and named for us who was blessed, in God’s eyes (not who’s blessed in the world’s eyes), he told us, his disciples, to be salt and light, talked about anger and divorce, caring for the poor, and now these last--what are called--anti-theses: “You’ve heard it said...but I say to you...”
art by Daniel Erlander (former pastor of SVLC)
You’ve heard it said an eye for an eye...but I say to you do not resist/retaliate against an evil doer. You’ve heard it said love your friend and hate your enemy, but I say to you love your enemies, and pray for those who attack you.
This, frankly, to our ears here in San Diego, Navy city, Marines, throws a wrench into our whole military industrial complex, set up to defend ourselves and defeat the enemy, right? Many of us wouldn’t be here today if the enemy (either foreign or domestic) wasn’t targeted and destroyed, right? And how, Jesus, am I supposed to love the same person I’m aiming a gun at? Sometime I would be very interested in having a discussion from those of you who are in the military or military families -- on how you hear this passage? How can we go into combat and love our enemies? Did Jesus just not get it? Was he just some hippie dreamer? He certainly lived in a time, as we do, where there was plenty of military presence across the land. I struggle with this, and I wonder how you’re struggle too...because like other parts of the sermon on the mount, this isn’t easy. If we’re going to follow Jesus, we’re in trouble, in some ways.
That question of loving our global enemies is a huge one that we can certainly discuss and debate and continue to pray about. And I think those were exactly the enemies Jesus was talking about. They could probably see Roman military officers right down the hill, as Jesus was giving the sermon.
But I also suspect that we have more enemies than just global terrorist, or certain North Koreans, or Al Qaeda, or all our other suspected enemies. I think this is exactly the wrench Jesus was talking throwing, and I’m struggling with this, as I’m sure you are too. But I also but I also think we have enemies closer to home.
I think, if we’re honest, we have enemies in our workplaces, or at our schools, or in our neighborhoods, or maybe even in our families. We might not call them enemies exactly, and wish to kill them, but we definitely have some less-than-loving thoughts and wishes for them deep in our hearts, and maybe even on our lips as we vent about them with our friends.
Jesus is speaking to this too. Remember: we start to see with Jesus in this sermon on the mount that he cares not just about our external actions, but maybe even more importantly what’s going on in our hearts. Blessed are the pure in heart. If your heart is full of hatred, and plans for retaliation, and bitterness and anger, I think it’s safe to say that you are not blessed. Not because God doesn’t love you: God deeply loves you and wants the opposite for you and your heart, but you are not blessed. You are not happy (as some bibles translate that word). Happy are those who are not weighed down with anger. That’s true. Know anybody like that? (for me it’s the ones who spend significant time in meditation)
Jesus’ very strong, very challenging, very clear teaching today, is once again a gift to us. And it wraps his powerful sermon up: Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you. [back to beginning] Blessed are the pure in heart.
Jesus who loved his enemies, loves us too. We have been met by this counter-cultural Jesus in this place, maybe for the first time today, but knowing you all, I know you’ve met this Jesus many, many times before -- in water, wine, word and wheat and through people. And this Jesus still hasn’t given up on us! He comes to be among us again and again. And today, he calls us into a new place of loving our enemies and resisting the need to retaliate, to return one evil for another evil.
Martin Luther King, Jr. has become an icon of the black community in our nation; he became in his lifetime a public figure; and a now we have a public national holiday to remember his life. But it’s worth reminding ourselves today that MLK was a deeply religious, Christian man (who spent significant time in prayer and meditation). And he centered his whole life and teaching on Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Go home and read some of King’s words on this text. This is a man who grew up with white supremicists throwing bricks through his living room window...and that was just the beginning. And yet he preached loving your enemies, and like any practicer of non-violence, he tells us that it’s not a project for the faint-hearted.
Jesus is calling us into a different way. There’s nothing new about loving your friends and hating your enemies. (That’s a strong word for us as church.) Even the tax-collectors do that. What’s new is loving your enemies, going the extra mile. And if you love your enemies, how much more will you love those closest to you.
God loves us as we struggle through this perhaps -- the most challenging passage of the bible -- God is with us. I wish that word ‘perfect’ was not used to translate the Greek telios. “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” That’s by definition impossible. Only God is perfect. But the word is telios is richer than our English word ‘perfect.’ It means, be mature and complete, be a whole person, a healthy person, a pure in heart person, a loving person, someone who’s not weighed down with anger and vitriol and the need to get back at everyone who’s wronged you. It means don’t roll over, and let others roll over you either. (Turn the other cheek actually is a reference, not to ‘here, hit me again‘ but rather, to stand up for yourself.) Be a person who stands up for yourself and for others. A person who does what is right and good. Be telios.
Today we get a booster shot. And like we try to explain to our kids, those terrible shots are actually good, and we actually have them done because we love our children.
“Love your enemies” stings. It pinches. And if we never thought we needed God’s help before, boy, we need it now with this one. “Help us Jesus, show us Jesus, how to do this very difficult thing.” And unlike the nurse or the doctor who gives a shot and leaves the room until the next shot or time there’s something wrong (with all due respect to our good doctors and nurses. Katie: “You’re mean!”), Jesus stays with us through it all. Through that moment when you’re facing your latest “enemy”. Jesus who has forgiven us, helps us with forgiveness. Jesus who has loved us helps us with love. Jesus who has had nasty words and actions hurled at him, helps us when we have nasty words and actions hurled at us. Christ is with us as we go out into a world that is filled with...the usual -- hatred, greed, retaliation, bitterness. And he is with us as we strive to be different.
For -- remember how this whole thing got started -- blessed are you. AMEN.
We hear these exhortations from Jesus in our Gospel today actually as grace and peace, being offered to us. But that takes some explanation.
Remember first of all that this is right in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, and always in ancient Mediterranean culture the most important stuff comes at the beginning and the end, but especially at the beginning. Do you remember what was at the beginning of this sermon?
This text today has to be read in context. We always want to read sections of Matthew as part of the whole Gospel of Matthew.
It’s important to remember also, that Jesus is talking just to his disciples here -- not huge crowds like in Luke. This is insider talk. They all know the commandments to which he’s referring. They were good Jewish boys and girls. They knew their Torah. And today it’s these three: thou shalt not murder, thou shalt not commit adultery, and thou shalt not bear false witness.
And Jesus is taking it to the next level! He’s challenging them to see that this Jesus-following life is not about just following the letter of the law. It’s about catching the Spirit of the law. And the Spirit of the law is offered to us in love. It’s offered to us to grant us grace and peace in our lives. This is “insider” talk: beyond just external, bare-minimum law abiding.
To put it plainly: Our text today reminds us again that “God cares about our relationships with each other.” ⬄ not just ⇳ To put it even more plainly: God doesn’t want us to hurt each other.
So these passages about anger, marriage and divorce, slandering and lying, lusting -- all of these are situations where human beings can get hurt, and hurt badly. Matthew’s Gospel, Paul’s letter, and Deuteronomy’s ancient ancient words all invite us to “choose life,” so that we may truly live (not just get by) in this blessed and broken world that God has given us.
There’s a difference between just following the rules (because they’re the rules) vs. allowing the rules to lead and guide you to a much richer experience of life. The spirit of the law is good.
The great minds of the Reformation talked about the law as a curb: Law doesn’t stop us from driving off the road, but guides us smoothly and much more safely to our destination. And by safely, I mean, when people aren’t getting hurt.
How we can hurt each other in our relationships: in our sibling rivalries, in our marriages, in our collegial relationships...
There is a certain “hell of fire” that we can experience when relationships are strained or even broken. That word “hell” in Greek is “gehenna” which everyone of that time knew was the trash dump that was eternally on fire, because waste kept getting dragged out of the city and dumped. Everyone could see the smoke, and so it was a vivid illustration for Jesus to use. He is really using hyperbole here...
There is a certain “hell of fire” that we experience when anger, jealously, lust and dishonesty infect our relationships, right? Sisters and brother in Christ, God cares about this. Christ Jesus offers us life in his “but I say to you...’s.”
You’ve heard said don’t murder but I say to you, even when you are angry with a brother or sister, you’re liable. That’s enough for us to work on this week right there. How’s your anger management going?
[Story of the Amish going to the parents the same day and attending the funeral of the boy who went on a shooting rampage and killed their children.]
It takes work. And our community of faith is so essential to that work. We need rules, bridles to keep us in check because our anger can come undone! (Not just externally either. Of course some of us have issues with shows of anger on the outside, but others of us bury our anger deep down inside so that it festers and comes out in all kinds of unhealthy ways.) God cares about our relationships, God cares about us, God cares about you. Don’t bury your anger.
The same can be said about adultery and divorce. It’s helpful to remember, first of all, that divorce -- and marriage for that matter -- in that period and place was very different. If a man divorced a woman, we’re talking human rights issues. She was thrown out like a piece of trash. And all the law says is that man needed to obtain the proper paperwork to do so. Jesus is challenging this treatment. God cares about relationships and people being hurt. And not just the woman, in this case, being hurt.
When people (and especially women) are being cheapened or treated like objects, isn’t it dehumanizing to both parties? You all know we have rampant objectification and exploitation of human bodies and sex in our culture. But this isn’t just a women’s rights issue; this isn’t just something we teach our little girls about -- to respect their bodies! It’s something we have to teach boys and men about too! For everyone is de-humanized in that activity of lust and adultery, sexual exploitation and rampant commercialization of sex and sexuality. God didn’t create us to hurt others and to be hurt! To cheapen others and to be cheapened. God cares about our relationships. Sex is good and beautiful and a gift from God.
And when people are being hurt, Jesus stands up and speaks! Jesus stands up and speaks when you are being hurt...and when you are hurting others or yourself. Just flying slightly under the radar, following the rules, isn’t a full life, doing the bare minimum to stay out of trouble. No, choose life, take risks in your Jesus-following, “May your yes be ‘YES, this is right and good!’, and your no be ‘NO, this is wrong!’” We’re not mousey Christians, peeping along; we’re giants of compassion and justice, righteousness and God’s grace and peace for this world.
We’re so filled to brim with Christ’s light that we can’t help but live in ways that reflect God’s love to the world. This is all response-to-God’s-grace stuff! Having encountered the reality of Christ’s divine presence in Word and Meal, we can’t help but love our neighbors and even our enemies (that’s coming in Jesus‘ sermon next week), we can’t help but keep our relationships in check, and loving. We can’t help but forgive. We can’t help but stand up for those who are cast aside, or those who are going through hell at home or at work or in school. Remember that you are blessed. Yes, we’re capable of some pretty awful things, but with Christ’s light before us, Christ’s body and blood inside us, Christ’s blessing upon us, Christ’s Spirit below us carrying us, there’s no valley of the shadow of death through which we can’t pass to the other side, still held in God’s gracious and loving embrace!
This is the Holy Spirit life to which Christ invites us. And that rich life that abundant life starts...now.