February 23, 2014 - Matthew 5.38-48

“Yes…But, part 2”

Matthew 5:38-48

February 23, 2014

 

38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so 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. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

 

Late one summer evening in Broken Bow, Nebraska, a weary truck driver pulled his rig into an all-night truck stop. He was tired and hungry. The waitress had just served him when three tough looking, members of a motorcycle gang pulled into the diner, and decided to give this truck driver a hard time.

They verbally abused him, then one of the gang members grabbed the hamburger off his plate, another took handful of his French fries, and the third picked up his coffee and began to drink it.

How the truck driver responded is legendary. He calmly rose, picked up his check, walked to the front of the room, put the check and his money on the cash register, and went out the door. The waitress placed the money in the cash register, then followed after him, and stood watching out the door as the big truck drove away into the night.

When she returned, one of the cyclists said to her, "Well, he's not much of a man, is he?"

She replied, "I don't know about that, but he sure isn't much of a truck driver. He just ran over three motorcycles on his way out of the parking lot."

My initial reaction to that story is... "Yesssssss!" It reminds me of old saying, "Don't get mad, get even!"  The problem is, that's not anything like Jesus tells us we should act when we are in situations that beg for retaliation, revenge, or getting even.[1]

 

As we noted last Sunday, Jesus tells us some tough, demanding truth in his sermon. I pray that, among other reasons for being here today, you have come here hoping to hear the truth because Jesus is not only the “way, and the life” but he is also, and always, “the truth.” Sometimes, I confess, I’m guilty of softening the truth in my sermons, flattering you in ways that are not completely honest. But not Jesus! He tells us the truth.

Jesus’ truth seems inherently, deeply nonviolent. All of us are against violence – unless it’s violence in the service of self-defense.

Jesus, as he demonstrated in his own life, is against even self-defense! There is not one instance in all of scripture of Jesus ever using violence or commending violence as an appropriate response to anything.

Like I say, I really hope that you have come to church this morning wanting to hear some truth!

And here is that truth:  Christians are called to a higher standard of living than normal human behavior. We are called to non-retaliation when wronged; think in terms of duties, rather than rights; and helping others, even when it infringes on your liberty and comfort. Then, to top it all off, we are to help someone in need, if we can, without thought of what we will get in return.

It doesn’t seem fair. 

That’s because it’s not.

It’s not fair – it’s the gospel, and it goes far beyond fair.

Let’s be honest.  We have a problem “turning the other cheek.”  We don’t like to turn the other cheek.  We would rather get revenge, a dish best served cold.  We would rather see the good guy wallop the bad guy.

But, Jesus says to turn the other cheek.  We don’t want to be seen as wimps.  How can Jesus say that?

Once again, we fail Jesus by not reading and studying scripture enough.  We think that turning the other cheek is a sign of weakness.  It is not.  In fact, it is a sign of defiance.  It is a challenging act, not a cowardly act.  Turning the other cheek, giving the cloak and going to extra mile are examples of displaying dignity and integrity while someone else is oppressing, bullying or abusing you.

Allow me to explain.

In the time and culture in which Jesus gives this sermon, it was an embarrassment to a person to strike another person on the face.  It was an example of losing one’s cool, of making a fool of oneself.  So if the person struck then offers their other cheek, he is inviting the abuser to have another go, to embarrass yourself again and show everyone what your real character is.  This is not weakness, it is strength.

It is the same for being sued for your coat, so just give them your cloak as well.  “I don’t need it – I have my integrity.” 

It is the same for being forced to go a mile by someone.  A Roman soldier was allowed to conscript a person into service to carry their gear for one mile, but no more.  Any further, then the soldier could get into trouble.

Again, this is not weakness, it is strength.  To turn the other cheek or go the extra mile is not to say “you have power over me,” it is the opposite.  It is to defiantly say “Because I follow Jesus, nothing you can do to me is of any consequence.  I will endure whatever you dish out.”

Because human beings are created in the image of God, a human being has the right to expect basic dignity, respect and consideration from other people. But if we're wise, we know that we won't always be treated with dignity, respect and consideration. In fact, the Bible is very clear that if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you can expect to be ridiculed, mistreated and be shown contempt.[2]

As I was contemplating this text this week, it dawned on me that this scripture actually contains a great comfort to those people who have been abused or held powerless in their lives.  Some of you fit into that category. 

Let me state for the record: if you have ever been abused, or the victim or some type of abuse or oppression, I am in awe of you.  You survived it.  You lived through it and your abuser never took from you what the people on Calvary never took from Jesus – his dignity.  They never took your integrity.  In that way, whether you know it or not, you are very much like Jesus.

Jesus is saying to us that they can make us do this stuff.  They can physically abuse us, but they can never touch our souls.  They can destroy our bodies but they can never lay a hand on what Jesus has laid claim to.

You might be saying, “Preacher, you’re laying it on a bit heavy this morning.”  I would say, “Yep.  This is Jesus’ sermon and this is church.  This is the stuff we should really be talking about.”

Overheard at a conference recently were these words: “People don’t come to church to be disturbed. They come to hear all the weak platitudes from their childhood. They come to church to be patted on the head and told that everything is fine with their lives, and then to be sent home for a good meal.” This is how one pastor characterized what laypeople expect from preaching. There was widespread agreement in the group of assembled clergy.

While I know that this observation has some truth in it, and I do not doubt that many people expect a sermon simply to confirm what they already believed before they came to church that Sunday, I also know from pastoral experience that one of the reasons why people come to church is that they are seeking the truth, that they really do want an encounter with the truth who is Jesus Christ.

Some people come to church for wrong reasons – such as to have confirmed what they have always believed – only to have their reasons exchanged for better reasons while they are at church. There is always the possibility that they have come to church thinking that the thing they need most in life is peace, comfort, or reassurance, only to be surprised to hear in a truthful sermon that what they really needed most was the truth.

Christians are those who believe not only that Jesus Christ is the way, and the life, but also that Jesus Christ is the truth. He is the truth about ourselves, and he is the truth about God.

So, if you have scars on both your cheeks from turning them all the time, I say God’s blessings be upon you.  I know how hard it must be for you to want revenge.  But that belongs to God, and besides, Jesus says that an eye for an eye doesn’t ever work.  We know that.  Look at the Middle East.  How is that eye for an eye thing working out there? 

Until we are ready to follow Jesus’ gospel of loving our enemies and turning our cheeks, nothing will ever change.  It doesn’t mean forgetting what was done wrong to us, it means moving forward with our lives.

Every ounce of grace God has given me is meant to be extended beyond me to others.  How quickly - or hesitantly - I pass it on is a reflection and demonstration of how grateful - or not - I am for it.[3]

 

Well, I guess my point is that we have all been baptized (or nearly all of you). Do you not know that when you were baptized you were baptized into the death of Christ? As a great theologian once said, the death of Christ was the death of death. Do you not know that you have died to death – and to all the things that make for death? Come to the water! Do not choose death but life! And do you not know that when you died to death you died to falsehood – and to all that falsehood teaches? Do not yield yourself to falsehoods, and do not go along with those who do – even when they hide their falsehoods under a show of piety.

Of all bad men, said C.S. Lewis, religious bad men are the worst. Come to the water! And do you not know that when you died to falsehood, you died to brutality and bloodshed? Live in conformity with your baptism into Christ! Choose life, choose truthfulness, choose peace – and the things that make for peace!

Our Lord Jesus preached peace, but “not as the world gives.” Peaceful Jesus was from the first a disturber of the status quo. Alas, too often Jesus’ followers have been on the side of peace at any cost, peace as the world gives in opposition to Jesus.

A remarkable moment in church history occurred in Alabama in the ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As you know, Dr. King was discovered in Alabama while he was a Baptist pastor in Montgomery, where the church called him to the ministry of Disturber of the Peace, the “peace” wrought by people like George Wallace and Bull Connor.

I’ve got a copy of “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in which Martin Luther King Jr. justifies why he organized marches and sit-ins that “disturbed the peace.”

“Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation . . . Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

King explains that while he opposes violent tension, he believes there is “a type of constructive, nonviolent tension . . . the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”

The purpose of King’s protests was “to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.” The liberal recipients of King’s letter hoped that Birmingham would desegregate without a fight. King eloquently told them they were wrong. (See the account of the lives of the recipients of King’s letter in Jonathan Bass, Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”)

The peace that King disturbed was no peace, but instead Birmingham’s police state, constructed by powerful people in order to oppress and terrorize black citizens. There would be no transformation without the disruption of truth-telling.

In my experience, churches always hope that it is possible to be faithful to the mandates of Jesus Christ without the pain of disruption and dislocation. We pastors tend to be reconcilers and peacemakers who are uncomfortable with disruptions.  Let’s remember that Jesus Christ was unable to work our redemption without a disruption of the status quo that eventually led to his crucifixion in a vain attempt to silence him.

They crucified Jesus.  If they come after us, we are in good company.

 

 

 

[1] http://www.pastortom.org/sm15.htm

[2] Ibid, www.pastortom.org.

[3] Robert Johnson, New World Church.

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