Forgiving by Jan Richardson
So here we are once again. For the third week in a row, we are sitting on the mountainside listening to Jesus preach the Sermon on the Mount. You should all be grateful none of my sermons are as long as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount…we’d be here much much longer.
For those of you who weren’t here last week, and even those of you were, undoubtedly could use a refresher – so let me take just a moment or two to recap. Over the last couple of weeks, we have listened to Jesus articulate who is included in God’s blessing – blessed are the poor, the meek, those who mourn, the peacemakers, those reviled for their faith, and so on and then Jesus has begun to reinterpret the laws of God.
First, Jesus addressed ‘thou shalt not kill,’ which feels as straightforward as a law can be. And yet, Jesus teaches that there are other ways that bring about death in the community other than taking the literal life of another. Harboring anger against another, leaving harms and hurts unattended, these allow divisions to fester and the strength of the community is compromised as reconciliation is ignored. So even though “thou shalt not kill” feels like a clear-cut commandment, Jesus unpacks for his listeners the many layers of God’s law, highlighting God’s desire for abundant life–not death–for all God’s people.
Then, we heard Jesus interpret the law ‘thou shalt not commit adultery.’ Again, Jesus teaches his listeners that the law is intended to bring about life and fulfillment. In the context of adultery, Jesus highlights the brokenness experienced in a relationship in the absence of mutual respect. It’s not just the ultimate act of adultery that is prohibited.
Jesus teaches that we must not objectify one another, not view one another as property or conquests to be won. Rather, and perhaps especially within the marriage relationship, having respect for one another – genuine respect for the humanity of another is paramount.
And, lastly we heard Jesus unpack God’s law against swearing falsely. No human alive, not one of us, can lay claim to knowing the truth in every circumstance–God alone holds that authority. And, Jesus, therefore, calls us to be honest in what we know and humble in what we do not.
In these first three laws, Jesus helps us to understand that it’s not just the murder, adultery and lying that cause brokenness among community but rather, it is the absence of reconciliation, respect and humility.
And, today, Jesus interprets 2 more laws and frankly, these are two of the hardest ones for us to hear, understand and put into practice. So, let’s get to them. Turn with me to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 5, verses 38-48 and let us listen for God’s Word to us today.
Let us pray: Gracious and Loving God, help us to understand your Word. Crack open our hearts and make us vulnerable to your earth-shattering, world upending, wildly magnificent love. And, may we be ever changed by it. Amen.
Matthew 5: 38-48
38 ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
This is the Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.
Pretty heavy stuff here, right? It’s a familiar text to us and it is one of the most well-known texts of the Christian faith – even non-Christians know that Jesus instructs us to turn the other cheek and to love our enemies. And yet, though vital to living out our faith in the world, this text, these instructions, these are some of the most difficult instructions for us to follow – but not impossible. If our first three laws to follow as a community of faith are Reconciliation, Respect and Humility, these are the laws of Generous Mercy and Prayerful Love and they are intimately intertwined with the first three. So, let’s get to them.
“You have heard it said…and eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth…but I say to you, retribution creates endless cycles of violence. Children of God, stand up and break the cycle by applying mercy, generously.” So, I want to take a minute and back up a second here because address something that often comes up when addressing this text. You see, this text is often interpreted in a very personal or individual sense. Often, when we hear it, we imagine the ways it can be wielded against someone in an abusive relationship. I admit that the thought of an abused person turning the other cheek as a sign of faithfulness makes my heart sink and ache. But, it’s important to remember that this isn’t the situation Jesus is addressing here. Jesus isn’t addressing victimization here – he’s casting the vision and reinterpreting the law to fulfill the kingdom of God. To get past the litany of ways this instruction could be abused, we have to remember the context in which he is speaking.
Jesus is still preaching his Sermon on the Mount and he is preaching to and about the whole community of faith. He’s speaking to the macro level – yes, we are all individual members of the community and have individual responsibility – but he is declaring that the law, which he came to fulfill, is a gift from God to enable God’s people to co-create the kingdom of heaven together. So, I invite you to go deeper into the text to hear what it might mean for us, as members of a community of faith, to practice offering our other cheek, rather than pursuing retribution. And, what’s helpful to get us started here is that Jesus is speaking about resistance to evil, not the evil-doer. This is about being light in the darkness, love in the face of evil. This is about justice overcoming oppression, peace overcoming inequality and evil.
So, first, let’s consider what ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’ means for us. So much of our impulse as humans is to respond in kind – you give me a gift, I send a thank you note; you put a kick me sign on my back, I put a fish in your locker; we naturally seek out that which we believe is balance. This is what seems “fair” to us. However, when it comes to confronting the forces of evil in our midst, Jesus encourages us, as a community of faith, to consider that ‘fairness’ is not the appropriate nor effective approach to bring about peace. On a communal level, when one experiences oppression or violence, seeking to turn around and oppress another or ‘making them pay for what they did’ is not the order of the kingdom of God.
Many years ago, back in 2003, I went to live in Belfast, Northern Ireland for a year and I served as a Young Adult Volunteer there. I lived in what claimed to be a “mixed” neighborhood and I worked as a youth worker in both a Presbyterian Church and a community project located in a Catholic neighborhood and in my time there, I learned, first hand, what power ‘turning the other cheek’ could have in bringing about peace. You see, the neighborhood community project that I worked for – it was located in a neighborhood that was largely under the control of the Provisional-IRA paramilitary group – the “Provies” as they were called. And, the kids that I worked with – they all knew about the Provies – Provies were family members, friends, neighbors. Being raised in a society steeped in conflict, they knew who the power-brokers were in the neighborhood – who the ones were that “protected” them from “Prods” (or, Protestants) across the way and who kept order within the neighborhood bounds. But, they were also aware of the cyclical nature of violence and, keenly aware of the impact that ‘eye for an eye’ has, keenly aware that violence begets violence.
The community project I worked with was called Mornington Community Project – and one of its founders was a Protestant man who lived in the neighborhood with his family. Ken Humphrey, out of his faith, inspired by the movement towards peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, dedicated his life to the endeavor of peacemaking, of reconciliation, and he made the decision, along with his wife, to cross the “peace line” and live in a community historically at odds with the family and tradition of his upbringing. Rather than reject this Catholic neighborhood because throughout history, members of their controlling paramilitary exacted harm on the neighborhood from whence he came, he, instead, spent years building relationships with his new neighbors, patiently getting to know them, inviting them into his home and listening to their stories. And, in 1989, long before the peace accord was reached in 1998, Ken became the Director of the Mornington Community Project – A faith-based project committed to community reconciliation and social justice that included programs for cross community engagement, employment development, and educational development and it even had a community coffee shop. And, it was here in this place where community members could come and see, could come and participate in the practice of ‘turning the other cheek.’ Day after day, children and youth, adults and senior citizens would show up at Mornington and they would speak with at least one Protestant – Ken – and as time progressed, they spoke with me others, including me. Over time, a partnership with the Presbyterian Church up the road was created and together, the communities began to practice turning the other cheek against the forces of oppression among them, and over time, healing began to take hold. And over time, they began to strive for peace, for a more abundant life.
Though one person has the power to make a difference, it isn’t just one person that brings about peace. It is the action of God’s people as a community refusing to sustain the cycles of violence that brings about the kingdom of heaven here on earth. And, this is the kingdom that Jesus intends when he re-imagines the law which originally sought to seek justice. Turning the other cheek means building relationships. It means showing mercy and applying mercy generously to all – even when it doesn’t seem “fair.” Admittedly, this is a hard law to obey – it’s hard to obey because it compels us to then consider that showing mercy is an act of love and if we are to show mercy to all people, including our enemies, how much further must we go to love our enemies?
Which brings us to the next law Jesus addresses – Jesus instructs us not only to love those we naturally are inclined to love, but to also love those we disagree with, those we feel threatened by, those we hope to not be like. And, I love Jesus’ challenge here in his interpretation – he highlights tax collectors and the Gentiles, because these were populations that weren’t considered all-out enemies of the Jews. Rather, they were populations that the Jewish people felt threatened by, populations they viewed themselves as better than. For those of us sitting here today, we could imagine Jesus challenging us to consider how theological liberals can be as judgmental as theological conservatives, or, like the tax collector, Democrats might be challenged to consider that Republicans also hope for the well-being of all. And, Jesus offers a very practical suggestion as to how to begin to love the enemy – and that is to pray for them. Notice here that Jesus doesn’t articulate what the prayer is – he doesn’t outline the words to pray when praying for persecutors like he does with the Lord’s Prayer. However, the shape of the prayer is love, not self-righteousness. And if the shape of the prayer is love, then we must begin to recognize that if we have prayed for someone we love, then we are familiar with the prayer for our enemies.
Church, to be a Christian, to obey the law as Jesus imagines for us, is not to be a doormat – and it’s not about being nice either. Because we are salt and light, blessed when we are mourning, children of God when peacemaking – we are not limited by the norms of societal fairness. Rather we are free to break the cycles of violence, free to pray for those we fear, those we disagree with, those we consider the enemy. To obey the law, it’s not about what you have to do but what you are free to do, what you are empowered to do by God as a community. According to the law, we are to Seek Reconciliation. Show Mutual Respect. Take a Posture of Humility. Practice Generous Mercy. And, Commit to Prayerful Love. These are the laws of God gifted to God’s people so that we might be co-creators with God the kingdom of heaven, right here on earth. What miracles might come if we truly obeyed these laws? As individuals, and as a community of faith – what blessing may we bear witness to? Oh, that we might glimpse the kingdom of God, that we might glimpse the peace and justice we are all created for. May we be strengthened to be obedient to this law – these laws of grace and love. Amen.
The Hardest Blessing by Jan Richardson
If we cannot
lay aside the wound
then let us say
it will not always
Let us say
will not eternally
determine our path.
Let us say
the line of our life
will not forever follow
the tearing, the rending
we have borne.
Let us say
can take some practice,
can take some patience,
can take a long
and struggling time.
Let us say
that to offer
the hardest blessing
we will need
the deepest grace,
that to forgive
the sharpest pain
we will need
the fiercest love,
that to release
the ancient ache
we will need
for every day.
Let us say
will not be
our final home;
that through it
runs a road,
a way we would not
but on which
we will finally see
so long practiced,
coming toward us
shining with the joy
so well deserved.
(sermon preached at Takoma Park Presbyterian Church on 2/19/2017)