Scriptures: Psalm 23 & Matthew 5:38-45
Originally Given on April 21st, 2013 at UPC of Amsterdam, NY
Jesus stood up in front of the crowd that day and I imagine they had many of the same questions coursing through their heads as we do today. His audience, primarily Jewish, inhabitants of their own land and yet at the mercy of an occupying force that treated them harshly and with little regard for their personal well-being or contentment. And the response of many of the Jewish leaders of that time to the occupying force was either one of submission, in which religious leaders sought to use their submission to ingratiate themselves to the Roman authorities, or rebellion in which groups of Jewish men and women would battle, valiantly but in vain against the overwhelming military force of the Roman Empire. This bifurcated society left many stuck in the middle, not wanting, nor benefitting from lining up with the occupying force but unsure if it was wise to violently seek to overthrow the most powerful military force the world had seen up to that point. And so it was that many felt a permanent sense of paralysis in which the fear of the unknown, the fear of not knowing when the Romans might decide to rough up your village or your family, came together with questions of resources and whether they would have enough money to feed themselves and their family. And so it was, I imagine, that many of the folks who gathered on the mountain that day were not certain what it was that they were wanting to hear, or what they wanted to do, but sensed in this prophet before them, a hope that maybe they hadn’t felt in a long time. But I wonder if when Jesus began to speak to them if his words were as startling to their first century Jewish minds as they are to ours today.
“You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I tell you do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes your right cheek, turn the other one also.” Jesus’s statement struck at the heart of both the Jewish system of justice and at the armed rebellions that dotted the landscape of Palestine. What Jesus was calling for wasn’t a system of bloodlust and revenge in which when one wrongs you the immediate response is to find recompense for what that person did to you, did to your family. What Jesus was calling for wasn’t a deep seated hatred towards those who occupy your land and control your property but rather a grace-filled love that distinguished between the earthly body and the spiritual foundation upon which we all lean. A realization in which the one who is being attacked doesn’t simply respond in kind but ponders whether such a response only perpetuates the systems of violence upon which so many relationships throughout time have been founded. But he’s not done. “If anyone wants to sue you for your coat, give your cloak as well.” Again the justice system of their (and our) time is thrown into chaos. The call to follow Jesus is a call to not cling to the things of this world, to not form attachments to the stuff of this world because true happiness, true wholeness can never be found in ones coat or cloak or car or house but rather true contentment is found in a reliance on the movement of the Spirit to make all things well.
“If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” Be a servant and possess a servant’s heart. Too often we are content to do simply what is asked of us without considering how much more we could do to bring about change in the world and our little corner of it. Don’t just go the minimal part required of you, anyone can do that. But rather, go out determined to give everything you have to the work and worship of God because then you begin to sew seeds of peace and love, not simply maintenance of the status quo. “Give to anyone who begs from you and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” The language here is stark. Jesus has shifted the paradigm again. Just a little earlier in the story John had said that if you have two coats give the second one to the poor but now Jesus comes along and goes even further down that road, “give to anyone who begs.” Don’t give out of your abundance but truly give in a manner that begins to make resources more equitably distributed. Later Jesus is going to tell us not to hoard our resources where moth and rust can eat away and where thieves will steal but rather give it away for the betterment of the whole world. Don’t form attachments to your stuff but become grounded in the Spirit of God.
“You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Again Jesus’s words turn the whole of human history on its head. It is easy, Jesus says, to love folks who love you. Anyone can do that. It is the easy path, the one of least resistance to reach out to those around you who treat you well. We do that, don’t we? We think of folks as family and not family, as friends and not friends, as those who are “with us” and those who are “against us.” But how many times do we pray for those who wish to do us harm? How many times do we pray for countries that do not have the best of relationships with our own? How many times do we pray for the tyrants of the world and seek to show them love? How many times do we pray for people who see the world in profoundly different ways than do we? I’m not saying one of those prayers where we wish that people would just see the world like we see it, Amen. But rather, that the Spirit of God be followed. That the spirit of God be worshipped. That the spirit of God be loved by everyone in the world and leave it at that and trust that in those prayers, in that concern for the other, in that moment of love interjected into relationships founded in hate that someone about fundamental realities of the world are shifted and a little more light might creep into relationships too long shrouded in darkness. Jesus, lays out the blueprint for a more perfect world. Are we brave enough, faithful enough to follow it?
I have spent a lot of time this week reflecting on the state of the world in which we find ourselves. Beginning with the actions on Monday of two men descended from a country that most of us couldn’t find on a map we were all thrust into the chaotic space created when the cocoon of safety we build around ourselves is torn asunder by events out of our control. Perhaps more so than even September 11th the violence of this week was splayed across our television and computer screens as information could reach from Boston around the world in milliseconds and everyone could both take it in and participate in it. And in that way we were instantly connected with the struggle and strife of the people in Boston. Their pain became our pain, their anguish our anguish and on Friday when uncertainty and worry turned into chilling fear, many of us sat glued to our television screens watching the drama play out like it were a spy move coming to life in real time in an unrelenting fashion in which the cable news networks spent almost 20 hours without a commercial break. And if you were like me, during this last week you have experienced a range of emotions from anger to hatred to sadness and despondence. If you are like me you have on more than one occasion become so overwhelmed with the flow of sounds and images that you had to turn off the news and take time to unplug from it all. And if you were like me, you sent up a small prayer of thanks when the word came on Friday evening that the suspect had been captured alive and was having his medical needs attended to. If you were like me, you thought, “finally, no more bloodshed. No more tonight.” A moment’s respite after in incredibly long week. But in the aftermath, among the many questions that are filling the air around Boston and throughout our country is, “How do we now respond when events like these seer themselves into the collective memories and experience of the nation and the world. And of course Boston isn’t the only place in the world in which the violence often found in human hearts visited. This week has brought a series of bomb blasts to places around the world. In Iraq three separate mosques were the target of explosions as the tension between Sunni and Shiite factions continues to pull that country apart at its fragile seams. North Korea continues to bare what teeth it has in an effort to destabilize an already tense part of the world. Clashes in Greece, India, drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan and before long you become overwhelmed with the very fact that this in an incredibly violent period of time in which we find ourselves and maybe it is time to consider another way to be.
For most of our time we live in the fog of an illusion that what we do right now doesn’t matter at all in the rest of the world. We pretend like in our tiny little corner of the world the impact we have is so minimal that no one anywhere else even notices it and that’s not without reason. We are a small town in a huge state, in a much larger nation, in a world of almost 7 billion people and to think that what we do can have an impact on many of them seems foolish. And yet. And yet, as we think back over the week, how much of an impact was made by two men on an average Monday afternoon? As you think about the way in which the world has changed following the week of terror caused by two guys, consider what the opposite might look like. If two men, using crude devices, could stand the world still for a week, what can 40, 50, 60, 120 people working seriously for peace in the world accomplish? In a timein which there are people throughout the world seeking to do violence, to hurt and kill as many people as possible, are we not called to work just as strenuously, with just as much commitment, towards attaining peace in the world? There was a time in the history of the world in which tribes warred with swords and spears and while it is sad that groups sought to settle their differences through armed combat it does not compare with the level of carnage that can be wrought by one group, one nation-state against another, one allied force of nations against another. When multiple nations possess the ability to destroy the earth several times over, there is no longer a question of violence versus nonviolence but rather a question of nonviolence versus nonexistence and so just as in Jesus’s time, following Jesus’s words, we are called not just to not participate in violence but to pray, to sacrifice, to work for a lasting peace both in our hearts but also in our lands, and our world. In a competition between those who would do harm and those who would work for peace for too long those who do violence win because those who want peace don’t even show up. Friends we have crossed the Rubicon and now the balance of the world rests on the shoulders of those who work for peace and those who set off bombs at sporting events, or order drone strikes, or military incursions. Look around you, there is no one left to pass this responsibility onto. There isn’t a next generation to pick up the pieces we left behind and try and create stability from the shattered fragments of people’s psyches. We have to be the one’s that we have waited for. We have to be the one’s who hear the call of Jesus to be peacemakers. We have to be ready to be and act as children of God.
We each woke up this morning to the dawn of a new day, pregnant with all the hopes and possibilities that a day can contain. One 24 hour block, in a lifetime of 24-hour blocks. One sunrise in a lifetime of sunrises. One new chance in a lifetime of chances to reach out into the world in a loving embrace, to reach out to the stranger in your midst, to reach out to the enemy in your midst, to sew seeds of peace in a world too littered with bomb fragments and spent shell casings. To sew seeds of hope in a world too scattered with dreams that never came true because lives were cut too short. To seeds of love, in a world too often defined by what makes us different and not what makes us one. How should you respond to the growing violence in our world? By praying for peace, by working for peace, by living in peace with your neighbors, all of them. How should you respond to the deaths of those young and old taken in such a tragic and horrific manner? By making your life a life that would honor them and their lives not lived. By making the most of every moment and riding the wave of the Spirit wherever She goes. How should you respond? By not just living, but by being alive, every moment, everyday, every lifetime. Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace, for the love of God, amongst all God’s peoples. Alleluia, Amen.