A sermon for the seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A
Lev. 19:1-2, 9-18; Matt. 5:38-48
“This child shall be for the rising and falling of many.”
“Kings shall bow down and worship him.”
“One is coming who is greater than I.”
These prophecies, spoken of a baby, tell us what that baby’s life would be like, once he would come of age. Throughout this season of Epiphany, we have heard some familiar stories – of gentile kings bringing this child gold, frankincense, and myrrh; of his being baptized by John in the wilderness; of his miracles and his teachings. This child, become a man, has just begun to change the world around him in Matthew’s gospel. This man, this anointed one of God, would not see injustice without standing against it. He would not witness hypocrisy without confronting it. He would not encounter suffering and not change the circumstance.
This Jesus turned tables for a living. Now, when we hear that phrase, we might immediately think of him overturning the tables of the money-changers in the Temple. That story is coming, and I love to preach about it, so stay tuned… But Jesus turned over many more symbolic tables with his teachings and ministry, and those are the tables that have had perhaps his greatest lasting legacy, even to those who only see him as a moral teacher.
“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, offer him the other.”
“If anyone asks for your coat, offer him your cloak as well.”
“If someone demands you walk a mile, go the second mile too.”
These are thoughts and sentiments we still hear today. “Turn the other cheek.” “Go the second mile.”
In the middle of the gospel reading this morning, we hear the essence of Jesus’ ministry summarized in the phrase – love your enemies.
Admit it. Those two words don’t go together very easily – “love” and “enemy”.
The culture surrounding Jesus believed in revenge and retribution – “An eye for an eye.” People understood this concept without extra lessons or homework. “If you hurt me or the people I love, I’ll hurt you back and then some.” Today we might say, “I’ll sue you!” Or, more recently, “I’ll say nasty things about you on Facebook.”
But Jesus turns the tables, flips their expectations on end. “But I tell you…” “Love those who hate you.” “Pray for those who persecute you.”
It’s easy to love your friends – Jesus reminds his audience and us that even the worst person you can think of loves their friends. What credit is that to you? Jesus is calling those around him and yes, us here this morning, to resist the easy path. Pursue the higher path, even though it’s a harder climb. And don’t just take the hard road, take it further! Jesus didn’t say, “Tolerate your enemies.” Or “Don’t say mean things behind their back.” He said, “Love them.” “Pray for them.”
Now some folks take this to heart, and I’ve heard how they pray for their enemies, “Oh God, send a plague of locusts on them!” or “May boils break out all over their back.” Or “May they suffer for what they did to me until they say they are sorry.” Guess what, that’s a curse, not a prayer.
Jesus’ words call us to do the unthinkable – bless our enemies and their children. Pray for the well-being of our persecutors. Jesus calls us to forgive and be at peace with them.
And he doesn’t just leave it there. He finishes up with “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.” Ouch! Do you think Jesus means we can become that perfect? Jesus often used hyperbole – if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out, and so forth. No, I think Jesus knows all too well that we cannot reach the perfection of God, and yet that should not stop us from trying, for striving toward that goal.
This phrase “be perfect” would not have sounded as shocking to the ears of his audience, however. They had heard something quite similar before. In the reading from Leviticus this morning we hear one of the several recounting of a portion of what we have come to call “The Ten Commandments.” But we get to hear the context of the law and not just the sound bytes. Moses, speaking for God, begins, “Be holy, for I am holy.” Sound familiar? Holiness. Perfection. God is not mincing words here, and neither is Jesus.
The very first way that God calls us to be holy is to see that the poor and foreigners are fed. This concept is called “gleaning.” Do not pick your fields or your grape arbors clean. Leave a portion to benefit the hungry. This commandment, which didn’t make the final cut, because we could only have ten, is based on that central of all teachings – love your neighbor. Then come some more familiar words, “you shall not steal,” “you shall not bear false witness.” The examples around these commandments speak of neighbors. If we get nothing else from these lessons this morning it should be, “Love God.” And how do we love God, “By loving our neighbors as ourselves.”
And just as someone once asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ answer has changed the world ever since – he told them the story of a “good” Samaritan. An enemy. “Your enemy is your neighbor as much as your friend.”
Gandhi echoed Jesus’ words when he said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Jesus’ teachings on non-violence shaped Gandhi’s life and that of Dr. King. Jesus turned the tables throughout his ministry and placed before us a challenge. Be perfect. Be holy. Love your neighbor as yourself. And go further, love your enemies.
Can we do it? There are many, many stories I could share about the power of forgiveness. Those will wait for another day, but as we begin the season of Lent in just two weeks, keep your hearts and your ears open for more of the ways Jesus calls us to turn tables in our lives and our communities. Listen to God’s call to us, and it’s a simple one – Love.