Sermon, February 23, 2014, The Rev. Lori M. Lowe

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

Amen.

The Season of Epiphany is long this year, being determined of course by the date of Easter, and backing up from that, the beginning of Lent.  Epiphany can be as short as just five weeks.  But this year, with Easter not coming until April 20th, Epiphany will go eight weeks.

This means that we get some readings in the lectionary that we don’t normally hear, at least from Matthew’s gospel.  So today, we have the last part of the Sermon on the Mount, the so-called antitheses.  You’ve heard it one way, but I say another.

“You have heard that it was said [this is a reference to the Hebrew law], ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.”

Then we hear the three examples we all know practically by heart: turn the other cheek; if someone takes your coat, give your cloak, too; and go the extra mile.

I want to say some things about this part of the passage so we can move beyond it to what I believe are the deeper and more important parts.

First, let’s be clear that Jesus is not suggesting simple non-retaliation or passivity, but rather a radical way of being responsive.  Instead of being victims, Jesus’ disciples are to actively and intentionally respond to evil with acts of healing and kindness. 

This has the two-fold effect of non-violently confronting the evildoer, while also freeing the disciple of crippling anger and destructive bitterness.  There is an explanation for our three examples, if only we understand their background.

Turn the other cheek, Jesus says.  How many times have we seen that represented as a completely passive reaction to being slapped?  But if we had been sitting on that Galilean hillside listening to Jesus, we would have understood it very differently. 

You see, in the ancient world, one would strike a slave or servant across the face with the back of the hand.  One would never strike an inferior with an open hand.  That was far too intimate!  So to turn the other cheek was to imply equality; not the response of a victim.

When you’re required to give up your coat, he says, hand over your cloak as well.  A cloak was one’s basic garment, so to take it off was to be nude.  And this was shaming not to the one who was naked, but to the one who looked on his nakedness!  Again, it is a reversal of the intent of the perpetrator. 

As for going the extra mile, this is a reference to a Roman law that gave a Roman soldier the right to impress a non-Roman citizen into service – such as carrying his pack – for one mile, and one mile only.  To go further was to not only put the soldier in the uncomfortable position of breaking his own Roman law, but to make him a recipient instead of a conqueror.

These are clearly not the passive, doormat images we often associate with this teaching.  So what are these deeper and more important implications I mentioned earlier?  Just this: that the followers of Jesus are not to let our lives be determined by others; that is, our behavior is not to be in reaction to the conduct of others

We are to take our pattern of behavior from God, who – thank God – does not react to us on the grounds of our behavior or attitudes, but out of God’s own nature, which is to love us and bless us all, both the good and the evil, the just and the unjust.[i] 

In one of C. S. Lewis’s less well-known books, Till We Have Faces, there is a scene in which the main character says to her teacher and mentor with great anxiety and passion, “But isn’t God just?”  To which the teacher responds with tenderness, “Oh, no, my child.  God is not just or we would all be lost.  God is merciful.”[ii]

The heart of all this is, of course, forgiveness.  And over the years, I have come to believe that there is nothing more important to the Christian life.  Without forgiveness, we cannot love.  Without forgiveness, we cannot be free.

Several years ago, there was a story in the New York Times Magazine that I’ll never forget.  It was about a man named Nicholas Gage and his mother Eleni.  Eleni was a Greek peasant who had smuggled her young son out of their village before he could be “re-educated” (as they called it then) by the local Communist Party.  As a result, she was tortured and murdered on August 28, 1948.

Thirty-two years later, this son, Nicholas, quit his job as a reporter for the New York Times to devote his time and money to finding his mother’s killer.  He sifted through government cover-ups and false leads, but eventually found him.  His name was Katis.

Gage told of going up the path to a seaside cottage and finding Katis, fast asleep.  Gage described standing over him… staring at the man who had killed his mother.  As he pondered his revenge, he imagined how his mother had spent her last moments, not cursing her tormentors; but rather facing death with courage, content that she had protected her son.

“I could have killed Katis,” Gage confessed.  “But as much as I wanted that satisfaction, I couldn’t do it.  My mother’s love, the primary impulse of her life, still binds us together, often surrounding me like a tangible presence.  Summoning the hate to kill my enemy would have severed that bridge connecting us. 

It would have destroyed the part of me that is most like my mother.”

I’ve struggled in my own life with the wounds of betrayal and hurtfulness.  Nothing so dramatic as the experience of Nicholas Gage, but my own struggle nonetheless.  Perhaps you, too, have (or have had) similar struggles. 

You have heard it said, Jesus tells us, to love the good people and it’s natural to hate the bad ones.  But I tell you, that makes you no different from the ones you hate.  To belong to me, he says, to be children of God, you must aspire to be perfect.

But don’t panic!  Being perfect doesn’t mean without flaws.  The Greek word translated here as perfect, is teleios, which means to be whole, complete, mature.  So instead of being immature and reactive – of letting the behavior of others determine our behavior – we are to love the way God loves us: fully and completely, and without reservation.

God’s love for us surrounds us like a tangible presence.  It binds us together.  If we fail to understand that connection, we risk losing it.  When we treat each other with that same love – visible and possible to us because Jesus had shown us how, and the Holy Spirit gives us the power – then we claim our heritage as children of God, truly made in God’s image.

I don’t know about you, but I still need a lot of practice.

Amen.

lml+   



[i]  Preaching Through the Christian Year A, p. 121

[ii]  Lewis, Till We Have Faces, paraphrased