February 20, 2011 -- 7th Sunday after Epiphany -- Anne-Marie Jeffery

posted Feb 20, 2011, 7:13 PM by Unknown user   [ updated Feb 20, 2011, 7:16 PM by Terry Brady ]

Reorienting ourselves to God’s ways  

Matthew 5:38-48


And so it continues ... The Sermon on the Mount that is. These past few Sundays, in our gospel readings, we have been hearing the sermon that Jesus gave on a mountaintop. It has been an interesting few weeks and if you missed last week, that was a doozy.  Jesus took the usual teachings at that time on anger, adultery and divorce to another level.  I have to wonder how those who first heard the sermon took it all in at once and not bit by bit as we are doing. Jesus is expanding the teachings the people at that time knew – challenging them not just to follow the rules, but to look deep into their hearts.


This part of the sermon we heard this week is in the same format as last week’s. Jesus says "You have heard that it was said, `and then he describes what the old rule was. Then he says.” But I say to you,” and then expands the rule in all sorts of ways. This week however, Jesus doesn’t expand.  He turns the old teaching upside down. He goes from - You have heard that it was said, `An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, turn the other cheek, give your coat as well as your cloak to those who sue you, give to all who beg from you and do not refuse to lend to anyone who wants to borrow from you.   You may want to cover your child’s ears for this teaching lest they  come home and say I gave my new laptop to the man who asks for  money outside our school because Jesus told us to give to all who  beg from us.   


Then Jesus goes on to say, You have heard that it was said, `Love your friends and hate your enemies.' But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies.’ This too is hard, but perhaps more familiar to us. In church, we emphasize loving enemies more than we do the giving to all those we ask and yet it is still challenging. Again we ask, just as Emily, our assistant rector, did in her sermon last week – What is Jesus getting at? Really now!    If someone sues us for our smart phone, are we to give it to them and our laptop as well?   As a new owner of a Verizon iphone, this does not make me happy at all.


And then what does it mean to be asked to love our enemies?  What if our enemy is the person at work who is trying to put us down so that he or she can get the promotion? What is our enemy is trying to hurt our families. These questions push us hard. How can we be in a place where we lend anything that is asked of us?  When will it be that we give our cloak and our coat to those who sue us? How can we love our enemies – not just love them from afar but in ways where we continue to engage them and stay in relationship with them. Is Jesus asking us to be doormats for the world? I do not think so, but I think there is an important teaching for us in this gospel.  


Perhaps it has to do with our orientation. If these teachings so disturb us then perhaps we need to take a look at where we are. One commentator[1] in writing about this passage mentions a friend who grew up with missionary parents in a favela, a slum, in Brazil.  Asked how her family could live among the poorest of the world’s poor without danger of being robbed, she said, “Simple. You can’t own anything anyone would want to steal.”  I suspect that someone living this way would hear Jesus’ words much differently than those who have much to lose. Another place where I have encountered people with an orientation that may allow them to better take in this teaching was at the Church of the Epiphany in downtown DC near Metro Center where I served  as assistant priest.  Every Sunday morning before the 8 am service, they have a bible study on the gospel which is attended by both parishioners and the homeless waiting for the free hot breakfast. It didn’t take long for me to see that the homeless got the gospel in a way that I didn’t. When you have nothing, you are very aware that you get through each day by the grace of God.   You know how easily all the things we think we cannot live without - our houses, our money, our status and our iphones - can fall away. It is when our orientation is changed that we perhaps are better able to know that our true strength comes from God.  


One sermon on this gospel begins, “There is a shakiness to the world's life in these days which is frazzling people's minds and frightening their hearts. We are anxious about the major shifts that are occurring in the world's economies as well as in their political systems … In the middle of such ... anxiety and shakiness, it is a relief to come into the Lord's presence on this Sunday so God’s Life can arch over and undergird our own lives. “[2] In this gospel, Jesus addresses the source of our anxieties, by pushing on them – pushing us into the skid.  Are you worried about losing your coat and cloak?  If someone asks you for them give them away.  Are you worried about being hurt? Did someone strike you? Turn the other cheek. Jesus tells us not to worry.  Go ahead and love the people around you because God loves you in that same way.  Go ahead and give it all away because if and when all falls away, God sustains us. God is there when all else is gone.  


It is a hard teaching that Jesus gives us. It is the kind of thing that you learn when you have to learn - not when you choose to - yet Jesus invites us into this lesson.  Often I find that people who have been through a major shift in their lives whether it is losing their job or a relationship or their health or a loved one are more able to engage this teaching. Their experience has taught them that they can turn the other cheek and move on because their orientation has changed. They can give away their beloved and sometimes needed possessions because what is truly important to them has to do with relationship.  How can we engage this teaching if we are not in that place? I think we have to engage this teaching where we are. We have to meet it where we are in the here and now acknowledging that our lives are a journey. For some of us it will be to give away everything we have to anyone who asks. Think about the Mother Theresa’s of the world, who give selfless service to the outcasts.[3] For some of us it will be to turn the other cheek. Think about Dr. Martin Luther King who protested non-violently even when he was attacked. For some of us it will be to love our enemies. Think about black South Africans who work with their former oppressors to re-build their country[4].   


For others of us to engage in this teaching will be in ways that start out small and that will grow. We may take a look at our bank statement or credit card bill and say – you know I could spend less on going out to eat and send the difference to the Save the Children’s fund.  We could be more gentle with our staff or more patient with our bosses. We could forgive all those who cut us off in traffic and then let them in when they get stuck behind a stopped taxi.  We could find ways to expose ourselves to others with a different orientation. We could remind ourselves that God is with us even when our lives may not look like we might have imagined.  


And perhaps if we start in small ways, bit by bit our orientation will change.  This is the work we do together as a faith community. In our life together, in our worship, in our study, in our reflection with each other and in our care for each other, we challenge each other to live into this teaching for goodness knows, we all need reorienting and it is a continual process. So this week, take this teaching with you. Pray that we will be given the grace to live into the challenge that Jesus has given us. Pray that each day our hearts will be reoriented to the ways of God.  

[1] Jason Byassee, Feasting on the Word, Yr A, Epiphany 7, Matthew 5:38-48.

[2] 7th. Sunday of Epiphany , 02/20/2011, Sermon on Matthew 5:38-48, by Carl A. Voges, http://www.predigten.uni-goettingen.de/predigt.php?id=2705&kennung=20110220en  

[3] Barbara J. Essex, Feasting on the Word, Yr A, Epiphany 7, Matthew 5:38-48.

[4] Barbara J. Essex, Feasting on the Word, Yr A, Epiphany 7, Matthew 5:38-48.