9:30AM Sunday School
11AM & 7PM Worship

2203 San Antonio St.
Austin, TX 78705

Gospel Hospitality

John Leedy

February 23, 2014
Matthew 5:38-48

I’ll be honest, I really don’t know what to make of this.  The murmured words of Peter to those gathered around him echo the bewildered looks on the other disciples’ faces.  They had been on the hillside all day, and their leader, Jesus of Nazareth, was on a roll.  I mean, this is kind of crazy right?  Talk about not knowing your audience! Peter and his fellow disciples were no different than the multitudes gathered around them – Jews, young and old, male and female, oppressed by a foreign government, forced to pay ever increasing taxes to a distant emperor, burdened by complicated laws that made them subject to the whims of a passing soldier.  What is Jesus talking about?  Turn the other cheek, do not resist an evildoer, love our enemies?  Does Jesus know what he is asking of us?  Peter could see the minds of the disciples spinning into gear.  Maybe there was a way around this teaching – a loop hole perhaps?  Maybe Jesus is speaking in hyperbole – certainly he doesn’t actually intend for us to become doormats to the Romans.  Maybe Jesus means this in an internal, spiritualized sense – maybe we can just keep on living like we are and say a quick prayer for the government from time to time.  As the disciples begin to feel more reassured that Jesus has not gone off the rails, their Lord drops the hammer that dashes their hopes; “Be perfect therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.”

Let’s be honest, I don’t think many of us really know what to make of this.  We murmur these words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount under our breath, bewildered at the radical claims Jesus is making on our lives.  We’ve heard these passages before, “You have heard it said, but I say unto you” and “turn the other cheek” and “go the extra mile,” and “love your enemies,” but if we’re honest, a part of us deep down inside hopes Jesus isn’t serious.  Especially with that whole “be perfect” thing.  I mean, come on, we’re Reformed Presbyterians for goodness sakes!  It was Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation who said “Be a sinner, and sin boldly, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.” I thought we weren’t supposed to be “perfect”! I thought only God can be perfect and we are these totally depraved beings completely reliant on the grace of God to see us through.  At the end of our worship services, the pastor doesn’t stand up in front and say, Now go out into the world and be perfect.  My goodness, I don’t think anyone would come back if they heard that.  Is Jesus serious about all this?  And perhaps the more important question, if Jesus is serious, then how in the world do we take Jesus seriously in our own imperfect lives?

            We imagine that those disciples of long ago felt much the same way we do when we think about the implication of the words of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount.  Our human tendency is to try and soften these words into something more tame and manageable, able to fit nicely into our lives as we know them.  Perhaps Jesus is merely setting forth a series of values that we should aspire to – a kind of sage spiritual mantra that makes us feel good that our leader would say such things.  Or perhaps we can isolate these words of Christ in his historical context, eons apart from our modern world of complex global politics, competing economic policies, and constant threats from enemies foreign and domestic.  How can we not seek punitive measures in the face of chemical weapons attacks, school shootings, and corrupt managers of money?  How can we love those who hold contradictory political opinions that threaten our way of life?  How can we truly love those who espouse a lifestyle that makes us uncomfortable?  We hope that these are just spiritual admonitions, aimed at our souls and not at what we actually do with our bodies, our words, and our bank accounts.  Maybe Jesus just woke up on the wrong side of the bed that morning?  Maybe the barista made his coffee wrong and he was in a grouchy mood that day?  But as hard as we try to rationalize, deconstruct, and soften these teachings of Jesus, the harder Jesus pushes back. 

            I am convinced that Jesus means what he says here… and frankly it makes me nervous.  This is not the story book Jesus, or Jesus your best friend, but rather the Jesus here is the Son of God making some big demands on our lives.  It is the same Jesus who says later in Matthew 7 that “Not everyone who says to me, Lord Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”  Again Jesus says in chapter 7 that “everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.  The rain fell and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.”  And again in Matthew 28, Jesus gives his Great Commission to his disciples after his resurrection, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”  If we are to take Jesus at his word, to do the will of God, and to love our enemies, give freely of ourselves, and to be perfect, then we are truly called to a radically new way of life – completely and utterly counter to the way of the world. 

            While the thought of being transformed into a radical new way of life may seem complicated and daunting, the foundational message is really quite straightforward: We are called to love as God loves.  Think with me to the words we say around the Table of the Lord’s supper.  In our Great Prayer of Thanksgiving we remember the story of the people of God.  Despite forming us in God’s image, rescuing us from bondage in Egypt, and creating a lasting covenant with the people of Israel to watch over and be with them, we turn away from God time and time again.  We turn from the love that loved us first.  We reject the God’s ways of peace and harmony.  We distance ourselves from the image of God in others.  Yet time and time again, God’s love is bigger than our rejection.  God welcomes us when we ourselves are unwelcoming.  God makes peace with us in our confession despite the surety of our continued failure.  God rescues us from the violence of sin and death even though the world met the Son of God with a cross and a tomb.  We are called to be children of God, to resemble God in our words and actions.  We are called to love as God loves.  The words of Christ here are a portrait of the very heart of God, the heart of one who loves the unlovable, welcomes the stranger, befriends the outcast, dines with the tax collector, embraces the prostitute, suffers our worst, and rises to forgive us.  To follow Christ is to love others as we ourselves are loved.  The call of Christ to be perfect is less about getting everything right and more about loving as God loves.  God shows us how to live this way, it is our job to follow. 

            In October of last year, the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart interviewed a 16 year old Pakistani woman named Malala Yousafzai.  Malala is an outspoken activist for educational opportunities for young women in Pakistan and around the world.  In her interview with Stewart, Malala said that she couldn’t rely on her government or her military to ensure safe educational opportunities for young muslim girls in her country.  So she took to the internet, to the radio, to any outlet that would allow her to speak.  Then in October of 2012, Malala was riding in a bus on her way to school when Taliban assassins caught up with her and shot her in the head.  By way of international cooperation and swift medical intervention, Malala survived the attempt on her life and resumed her mission of global educational advocacy.  She became the youngest person to ever be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.  In her interview on the Daily Show, she said the following: “education is power for women and terrorists are afraid of education because then women would become powerful.” When her father asked her what she would do if confronted again with another Taliban gunman, she said, “my first thought would be to take my shoe and hit him.  But If you hit a Talib with your shoe, you would be no better that the Talib.  You must not treat others with cruelty.  You must fight others, but through peace, dialogue, and education.  I’d tell him how important education is and that I even want education for his children as well. That’s what I want to tell you, now do what you want.”  Malala is the latest in a lineage of world figures who captivate our imagination because they embody non-violent, non-retaliatory resistance. Ghandi protesting unfair taxes on India’s working class, to Martin Luther King Jr protesting racial inequality, to the Amish forgiving the man who killed 5 young school girls, to Mother Theresa who put her own personal safety and comfort aside to personally and physically engage the untouchable sick in the slums of Calcutta – these figures command our attention because they respond to the horrors of this world in ways that are so utterly counterintuitive to us.  They invite, they dialogue, they befriend, they speak truth, they engage, they love as God loves.  We venerate these people because they embody the radical hospitality that the Gospel of Jesus Christ commands us.  They are so completely open to the life of a stranger, so totally willing to give all they have in the name of peace and reconciliation, that they become one with the perfect love of God. 


            We may not be faced with the same attempts on our lives as Malala.  We may not be in a position to work in a leper clinic in Calcutta.  But each and every one of us can make it our personal mission to extend this same spirit of Gospel hospitality to everyone who we encounter, those we encounter in this space and those we encounter out in the world.  Each and every one of us can take these words of Christ seriously and actively pursue holy friendships with those who are different than us, those we share opposing views with, or those we usually just greet in passing.  Are the doors of UPC wide enough to warmly welcome all who enter?  Are the pews of UPC strong enough to support not just you and your family, but the newcomer who you invite to sit with you?  Is the table at UPC big enough to ensure that no one leaves here empty?  Is the font at UPC deep enough to reconcile the differences and the baggage between us in the love of God?  So this Sunday after worship, as we gather in the courtyard, look around and find someone who you don’t usually get the chance to talk with.  Introduce yourself, ask who they are, open yourself up to them.  Take the opportunity to turn a stranger into a friend.  Make it your personal mission to live into the gospel hospitality of Christ.  If there is someone in the church you have trouble passing the peace with, seek to reconcile with them.  If you are a Sunday School teacher, a ruling elder or deacon, or are a member of a church ministry, invite others to be a part of your class, your mission, or your ministry.  Come to the Sunday evening worship service and learn the names and interests of an amazing group of UKirk campus students.  Come to Micah 6 or UPLift and welcome those on the fringes of our society.  Come up and see the new youth room and have lunch with some of our teenagers.  Visit a children’s Sunday School class and see the amazing things they are doing in there.  Take a deep breath when someone cuts you off in traffic.  Give the customer service rep a break.  Tip your server well at the restaurant.  Seek reconciliation and peace in arguments.  Have some fun with your children and perform a random act of kindness. However you choose to live out Christ’s call of gospel hospitality, be perfect by loving as God loves, for that is how we shall be known as children of God.  Amen.