I’d like to begin by going back to that prayer we prayed at the beginning of the service, the collect; and we, sometimes I get asked, “Why is it called a collect?” It collects the themes of the day into one prayer and the theme today is love. Oh Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is nothing. Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift which is love. God’s greatest gift is love. God is love! And Jesus came from God to teach us about this love and about how to share in it; so if you remember nothing from the sermon today just remember that God’s greatest gift is love and God is pouring that love into your heart, my heart, our hearts. Remember that as we delve into Jesus’ difficult teachings in the Sermon on the Mount about love.
Two Sundays ago when I preached about this opening of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we’re hearing more of that today. This is tough, this is challenging stuff. When we hear Jesus talking about turning the other cheek and giving to everybody and loving your enemy, we just almost want to throw up our hands and say, “I don’t… Jesus, this is almost impossible!” But remember how Jesus began the sermon: If we were the disciples hearing this all at one time instead of over four or five Sundays, we would have just a few minutes ago heard the words “Blessed are the poor in Spirit. Blessed are you.” Jesus says you’re the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world. Jesus really builds them up and reminds them that they are holy, as we heard in the lesson from Leviticus, that they are God’s beloved. And then he gives them all this difficult stuff. Jesus is saying, “You are the light of the world and when you shine this is what it will look like- turn the other cheek, love your enemies, be perfectly complete. My God is perfectly complete.”
But listen, Jesus is kinda crazy. I mean can we just, can I get a head nod if you think Jesus sounds a little bit crazy here? All right, a little bit. Okay. I mean, he just keeps going on and on and we’re like “hold on!”
But let’s unpack it a little bit. So Jesus begins by quoting a verse from the Old Testament. He says, “You have heard it said ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” He’s quoting Exodus 21:24, which goes on to talk about ‘a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound and a strike for a strike.’ This part of the law that Jesus quotes, when we hear it at first, sounds like it is encouraging retaliation. Is it saying, “Well, if someone gets you, you can get ‘em back.”? The intent of this passage was not to encourage retaliation but to discourage over retaliation.
Now I know we don’t do this anymore but back in those days, if somebody gave you a minor slight it was, it was often the case that you give them a major slight. If somebody wounded you a little bit, well you’d hit ‘em back really, really hard. Now, I know we don’t do that around here anymore. If someone gives us a little insult, we don’t come back with a bigger one. I know that’s not the case with any of us. So under God’s holy law retaliation was allowed but only on a one for one basis. You could make it even-steven, but that’s it; that’s justice. And it’s fair, and there’s nothing wrong with ‘An eye for an eye’; because remember it’s not about encouraging retaliation, it’s about limiting it.
Going back again to the beginning of the sermon that we heard a few weeks ago Jesus says, “Don’t think that I’ve come to abolish the law, I’ve come to fulfill it.” So, Jesus hasn’t come to get rid of ‘an eye for an eye’, He’s come to expand it. And so he says, “You’ve heard it said this … but I say to you turn the other cheek, I say to you if someone sues you for your shirt give them your cloak also. I say to you if someone makes you go one mile go another and give to everybody who begs from you…” and on and on.
Now I wanted to really unpack all of those things for us and as I wrote it all out it became like four or five pages and I realized there was too much in there to try to get into one sermon. So I just want to ask the question, “Why Jesus? Why do you want to take it to this other level? Why do you want to… isn’t an ‘eye for an eye’ good enough?” Remember why Jesus came; Jesus came to teach us about that love that we talked about in the beginning. Jesus came to help us to love and to heal our broken hearts that have a hard time loving. And Jesus didn’t just come to the chosen people of God to renew their old covenant with God. Jesus came to extend that covenant to the whole world. Jesus came to the heal the heart of all people through his disciples and so what I think what Jesus is saying not that we have to get rid of an ‘eye for an eye’ but that we gotta move from retaliation to reconciliation. We’ve gotta move from making it even-steven to a place of restoration, to a place of healing, a place where we can all receive the love of God, moving from retaliation to reconciliation.
And so what Jesus is trying to get us to do is to expand our spiritual imagination. So, when he says all these things about turn the other cheek and go the other mile and give to all, I don’t think he’s saying you have to do this every time. I think he’s saying like expand your horizons. It doesn’t have to be limited to an ‘eye for an eye’. There are other ways that we can respond, ways that will make us vulnerable, yes, but in our vulnerability God can pour love into our hearts. Jesus has come to show us that, to show us that love that sometimes seems impossible and so he’s expanding our spiritual imagination, expanding our horizons and showing us that there is more that we are capable of.
But I still struggle with how we live out this turning the other cheek. I love what Paul says in the letter to the Corinthians, when he says, “in order to become wise you have to become foolish.” And many of you know that I love to be foolish, sometimes. I have a clown character, Ashes the Clown, (he’s a good clown by the way, he’s not one of these scary clowns). I took up clowning years ago because I found that being foolish opened up light and darkness for me and helped me to see life in the midst of death, and when I put on that red nose it opened my eyes to see things in a way that I couldn’t see when I was just being me. And so as I was thinking about this sermon, I was thinking I have a great foolishness story that I can tell about how we can all be kinda foolish and the power of play and all kinds of things that I love to talk about.
And then I was at a workshop on Friday and Saturday with about a dozen other St. Georgians talking about healing prayer. And you all know we’ve got this corner over here on Sunday’s were you can come during communion and you can ask our healing prayer minister to offer a prayer with you for yourself, or for someone else, or for a situation in our world. And we were there together with a guest from New Jersey, a guest priest and parishioners of five other Episcopal churches in our area talking about healing prayer and I will admit to you that I was thinking about my sermon while I was in there. “What’s that good clown story that I’m going to tell on Sunday, that’s going to make everybody feel great?” And we were talking about the vulnerability of prayer and sitting down with another person to share something that’s on our heart and it hit me.
More foolish than putting on that red nose sometimes is praying. Prayer can feel foolish. I mean, I love being over there with people when they pray, but I’ll tell you, it’s hard for me sometimes to go and ask somebody to pray for me. It feels a little silly, a little foolish, a little vulnerable to open myself up that way with another person; and it suddenly hit me that I couldn’t tell a clown nose story in the sermon today, I had to talk about prayer.
Prayer as God’s foolishness that leads us to wisdom. And Jesus talks about prayer in the gospel when he says, “You’ve heard it said love your neighbor but hate your enemy.” It actually doesn’t say love your neighbor but hate your enemy: It says love your neighbor, we just heard that one in Leviticus, love your neighbor as yourself; but then what people did was they kinda figured that well I just have to love my neighbor, if it’s not my neighbor I don’t have to love ‘em, right? Jesus says, “No, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Pray for those who persecute you. And when we were at that healing prayer workshop I realized that even though I pray for my enemies, I pray for people who are against the things that I am for, and I pray for them the way many of us probably pray for them, “God please pray for my enemies.” And I try to imagine them in a good place. But I had not gone to another, another believer to say please help me, help me to open my heart; I’ve not spoken the words out loud. There’s something powerful about speaking the words out loud, there’s something powerful about saying it, whatever the need that is on our heart. It’s kinda scary, it’s kinda foolish and there’s some wisdom in the fact that we do speak out loud with one another when we offer these prayers.
I have work to do praying for those with whom I vehemently disagree, praying for those who go against the things that I hold most dear. I’ve been trying to expand my spiritual imagination and invite others to; how do we respond for example when someone puts up a flyer at the University of Mary Washington with a swastika on it and words of intimidation intended to make people feel afraid because of who they are. How are we to love that person who we don’t even know who they are, how are we to love the people who circulate flyers in Spotsylvania County a couple of weeks ago talking about white supremacy. Sometimes we don’t know exactly how we will respond, and we don’t know how we are going to love those with whom we are opposed. Jesus gives us the way forward when he says, “Pray, pray for those who persecute you.”
Be willing to open your heart and vulnerability, acknowledging your need for grace before God, acknowledging their need for grace before God; and my hope, and this has happened more often than not, is that through that foolishness wisdom emerges. When we pray, and we pray and we pray something happens- some churches say push, pray until something happens. We’ve gotta pray for those who we see as against us, we’ve gotta pray together and sometimes we will pray in public places as a witness to the world and sometimes we will pray in the private corner of our church, but we will pray together, we will be vulnerable together because it is in that vulnerability that God can pour the love into our wounded hearts and heal them and we pray in the hope of healing, the hope of healing for ourselves and in the hope of healing for those who would violate the dignity of human people, of human beings and at the same time violating their own dignity.
We pray for a space, that we can create a space where we all can come, the wounders and the wounded, because we’re all wounders and we’re all wounded; for healing and strength for courage and for creativity, for expanded spiritual imagination and for foolishness, the foolishness of God that defies human wisdom. May we pray that we might receive and share the love of God, the love that has been poured into our hearts, the love that can turn us around. Oh God you have taught us that without love whatever we do is nothing, send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift: Your Love.