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Dr. David Evans
February 26, 2017
A Reading from the Gospel:
‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour 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; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Each week in the month of February we have been journeying deeper and deeper each week into Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. First we heard Jesus turn the values of the world completely upside down as we listened to the Beatitudes. Then we heard that we are called to be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” by forming circles of sanctuary and compassion around the most vulnerable of neighbors. And last week we discovered those who would follow Jesus are called to a “higher righteousness’. Now, today, we are called to “be perfect, even as our heavenly Father is perfect.” Hear the Word of the Lord from the 5th chapter of the gospel of Matthew.
Jane Smiley’s novel Horse Heaven introduces us to a horse trainer named Buddy Crawford. Buddy gets “born again”. He is all fired up about being saved. He is all fired up about following Jesus and going to heaven. Then one night he is praying and he sits down on the bed and he looks “up to the full moon, in whose region he imagines Jesus to be”, and he begins to talk to his Lord and Savior. He prays:
“Okay. Here’s the deal. I thought I was saved. That was what was advertised. I would accept you as my personal savior, and there you were. And, you know, I felt it, too. I felt saved and everything. But I find out that I’ve got to keep getting saved. “
Just as Buddy finishes pouring out his soul to Jesus, his wife comes into the bedroom, gets undressed, and asks Buddy why he is crying. Buddy tells her:
“When the Lord came into me it was such a good feeling.
(And I remember thinking): ‘I can do anything because of this feeling.’
But then there was all this stuff to do and think about,
and I don’t remember the feeling all that well.”
(from Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, by Lauren F. Winner, p ix-x)
I feel for Buddy Crawford. One moment he is secure in the grip of his own self-constructed certainties. The next moment his self-constructed certainties came crumbling down around him. And the question is: will Buddy find a faith that is less certain but more true?
In a sense this is what is happening as Jesus instructs the disciples on the Sermon on the Mount. I imagine them sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to him teach them about what life looks like for a kingdom believer. And the more Jesus talks the more their self-constructed certainties came crumbling down around them. What the would-be followers of Jesus are discovering is that obeying the Law of Moses is just the starting point of being a kingdom citizen.
One might even say that Jesus is deconstructing everything they hold sacred. Sacred certainties are being reinterpreted one by one by the truth of love. And if we read our text for today carefully we discover that Jesus is teaching a radical reinterpretation of the certainties around which we construct our lives. Jesus teaches:
- “You have heard it said (in the Law of Moses): ‘An eye for an eye’. And the world says “Amen!” Perpetrators of harm are only getting what they deserve. Like that scene in Tombstone, Wyatt Earp confronts some of the outlaws who killed his brother and says: “Tell them Wyatt Earp is coming, and hell’s coming with him.” And we all cheer because we are certain that revenge will win the day and equal the accounts and we will all feel better because justice has been done. “An eye for an eye…” this is the way of the world.
- But Jesus says, “Not in my kingdom!” Here’s how kingdom people act: ‘Do not resist evil. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also… And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile’.”
- Then Jesus ups the ante again: “You have heard it said (in the Law of Moses): ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’. And the world cheers. Because this is only right and natural. We are to love the ones we know. But we are under no obligation to those who would do us harm.
- But then that pesky Jesus interrupts our carefully constructed world that seems so natural and so right and says: “Not in my kingdom!” Kingdom people not only love their neighbor, kingdom people love their enemies and pray for the very ones you have every right to despise.”
And suddenly we hear echoes of Buddy Crawford ringing in our ears. Buddy who lamented that “then there was all this stuff to do and think about.”. The ones who had eagerly signed on to become kingdom citizens start asking themselves: “I didn’t realize it was going to be so hard.” Turn the other cheek. Go the second mile. Love my enemies.
Who is your enemy? Is there an enemy Jesus is calling you to love? A few weeks ago I took in a few of the Mid-Winter Lectures at Austin Seminary. Mid Winters are like a family reunion and years ago I self-designated myself a “common-law” alum of Austin Seminary. In the Chapel before one of the lectures I visited for a few moments with Sharon Risher. Sharon was a student at the Seminary when I was the Seminary Relations Officer at the Seminary in the 2000’s. In 2007, after graduating from Austin Seminary, she was ordained and called to serve as a Clinical Trauma Chaplain at Parkland Hospital in Dallas.
On June 17, 2015 she received a phone call from her nephew. He told her that there had been a shooting in her family church, Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The next phone call made her greatest fear a reality: her mother and two of her cousins were among the nine victims Dylan Roof gunned down at a Bible Study that evening. You may remember that many of the family members went on national TV in the days after the shooting and said they had already forgiven a white supremacist murderer, Dylan Roof, for his unspeakable act.
They were attempting to do what Jesus called them to do: love their most despised enemy. A few months after the shooting, Sharon was asked on CNN if she had forgiven Dylan Roof. And with an honesty that we all understand, she told the interviewer:
“I don’t forgive him. Yet. I know I need to get there. But I’m not there yet.”
Buddy Crawford says: “…there’s all this stuff to do and think about.” And what Buddy has discovered is: being saved is just the beginning of being following Jesus. Jesus’ call to be kingdom citizens is a call to be “perfect”, even as God is perfect. What that means is that we are to “grow up”. We are live deeper into the gospel. We are to be “Christ-like”. We are to live like we are created in the image of God. And we are to see others, even those we label our “enemy”, as created in the image of God.
You may remember the movie Dead Man Walking. It is the story of a Roman Catholic nun, Sister Helen Prejean, and her relationship with a despicable murderer, Matthew Poncelet. Matthew Poncelet has been in a Louisiana prison for six years, sentenced to death for ruthlessly killing two teenagers. Sister Helen begins to write Matthew Poncelet in prison. As the day of his execution comes closer, Poncelet asks Sister Helen to visit him. When she meets him face to face she discovers an arrogant, racist, sexist young man who does not even pretend to have any remorse for the crime he has committed. In fact he flatly denies that he is responsible. Sister Helen detests everything about him.
But for reasons only those who are baptized can understand, she persists in visiting him. Maybe Sister Prejean had skipped ahead to Matthew 25 and read: “…when I was in prison you visited me.” Over time a special relationship of trust develops. The families of the two teenagers do not understand why she is treating Matthew like a human being. They do not understand why she is “taking his side” and attempting to have his sentence reduced to “life in prison”. They want absolute and final justice. They want an “eye for an eye”. They want him to lose his life in payment for the life of their precious children. But Sister Helen believes that “people are more than the worst thing they have ever done in their lives.”
“People are more than the worst thing they have ever done in their lives.”
In the end word comes that Poncelet’s pardon is denied. Poncelet asks Sister Helen to be at his side on the day of his execution. Then, just before he is taken from his cell, Poncelet confesses to Sister Helen. He admits killing the teenagers. He asks her for forgiveness. Sister Helen tells Poncelet:
“Look at me. I want the last face you see in this world to be the face of love. So you look at me when they do this thing. I’ll be the face of love for you.”
This is the gospel. This is the kingdom. God knows that “nobody’s perfect.” We all sin and fall short of the glory of God. Yet in the end we see Jesus looking down from a cross and with love in his voice as he takes his last breath, we hear these amazing words: “Father, forgive them…” And it dawns on us: this is the very face of love. AMEN