“Easier Said Than Done”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
February 23, 2019: Epiphany 7
One day a few weeks ago I was running errands around town and had to stop at a red light. To the right side of the intersection was a church where the marque out front read, “This Sunday’s Sermon: Following Jesus is Loving and Practical.” Without any thought to context, I began arguing with the marque. I argued aloud in my truck and I said, “Nope. Following Jesus may be loving but it is surely not practical.” I then began to make a list in my head of all the impractical things Jesus called us to do. Just then, the light turned green and I stopped arguing with the church sign. I never got to finish that argument but I’ve wondered ever since what that sermon was really all about.
If I ever decided to take up the argument again of how following Jesus is absolutely loving but totally not practical, I would turn to today’s gospel lesson. Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Practical? I don’t think so. “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to anyone who begs form you, and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask from them again.” Let’s be realistic. If someone takes away all my goods, then I surely won’t be able to give to everyone who begs from me. This is nonsense. It doesn’t make sense at all.
“Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Now, that’s better. That sounds a lot more practical, like something you see on a poster in a school hallway or in corporate conference room. It is a beautiful picture, one in full-color with people of different races working together or children from around the world holding hands in a big circle and over the picture reads, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” We know these worlds as the Golden Rule. They cross the lips of our Lord, but they can be found in almost every religious tradition that has ever existed. This is the kind of wisdom we learned in kindergarten when the teacher told us to treat other people the way we’d like to be treated.
Sometimes it is tempting to boil the whole Bible down, to whole life of faith, to one verse like this. It is a verse we can understand and it sounds like practice wisdom about getting along fine in the world. But it is not possible to boil the Bible down to one verse, it is not possible to distill the nature of faith into one tidy sentence, not even a good one. If we pull the Golden Rule out of this chapter and us it as a summary of all that Jesus said and came to do, we will miss most of what Jesus said and did. We have to go back to where Jesus began, to the really impractical stuff, to the stuff that is easier said than done, if we want understand Jesus and his way. Jesus began by saying, “Love your enemies.” He says this not once but many times. “But love your enemies; do good and lend, expecting nothing in return.” This means that the Golden Rule applies even to those we know won’t treat us the way we would like to be treated. This is where the Gospel gets hard. This kind of behavior is not only impractical, but seems downright dangerous.
Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek and giving up your shirt along with your coat are so fascinating when we understand their context. It is likely that Jesus is speaking here to those who were victims rather than victimizers, to those who are oppressed rather than their oppressors. But Jesus isn’t calling victims to roll over and play dead. Instead, Jesus is teaching the victimized and oppressed an entirely new way to resist evil and their oppressors. In the culture of the first century, taking an eye for an eye or a hand for a hand was the most common mode of justice. Physical violence was common. If someone insulted you, you had the right to strike them with the back of your right hand on their left cheek. This was an act of domination as much as it was an act of punishment. You never used the palm of your hand, because the palm of the hand was considered sacred. Now, if the person who insulted you turned the other cheek once you hit them on the left cheek, you would be forced to hit them on their right cheek with the back of your left hand. But no one ever did that because the left was used, in the first century, for bathroom functions. This would force you to use the palm of your right hand to strike the person on their right cheek. This was actually a sign of honor, not one of domination and punishment. Death was preferable over giving honor to someone who insulted you.
The same type of resistance comes in giving up your shirt when your oppressor asks for your coat. This isn’t a case of giving an old coat to the winter coat drive. No, Jesus is talking about something wildly different. It is likely that someone would be asking for your coat in repayment of a debt. You owe your oppressor something and since you probably don’t have any land and very little money, your oppressor asks for your very coat. A violent and barbaric as Jesus’ historical context could be, the culture placed very clear restrictions on anyone who was trying to collect a debt. One of those restrictions was that the collector could not leave the debtor naked at sundown no matter how much he or she owed. It was simply not done. It went against every sense of decency and good order, not to mention it was against the law of Moses. So, Jesus uses this as a strategy of resistance. If the debt collector asks for your coat, Jesus says, give everything to them. You’ll be standing there half-naked, but now your oppressor has to deal with the inhumanity of their actions.
Jesus is not telling people to remain victims but to find ways of resisting evil. “Love your enemies,’ Jesus says, ‘do good to those who hate you.” Totally impractical. Much easier said than done. But this is the way of Jesus Christ. This is the ethic that moved Martin Luther King, Jr., to kneel down with many brothers and sisters while being assaulted with fire hoses and police dogs. Many people thought he was crazy. “Only violence can fight violence,” they said to him over and over. But the authorities and the oppressors didn’t know what to do with this sort of resistance. They knew the power of violence. They knew that they could beat and club anyone who did not listen to their orders; they knew the power of the lynching tree and the guns strapped to their hips. But this was something new, something they had not seen before. These were victims who refused to be victims, victims who refused to fight back, victims who claimed their place and reshaped the battle completely. And it left evil with its jaw on the ground. King later said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,” Jesus said. And, while you’re at it, don’t be too impressed with yourself for being good to your friends. Anybody can do that. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much again.” This is the trouble with Jesus. Just when we have the Golden Rule memorized, and even when we are following it relatively well, Jesus swoops in to remind us that his ethics run far deeper than how we treat our friends. It’s far deeper than what we hope to receive. It is even different from treating others the way we hope to be treated. If you want to be my followers, Jesus says, love your enemies, do good, and give without expecting anything in return.”
My brothers and sisters in Christ, Jesus’ way is not practical, it is a terrible way to get ahead in the world, utterly against what comes naturally to us. But that’s part of what Jesus came into the world to do, remember? He did not come to coddle our fragile hearts, stroke our egos, and tell us we were doing just fine. Jesus came to show us the error of our ways and how, with God’s help, we can overcome those errors and life new and transformed lives. A colleague of mine this week reflecting on Jesus’ words in the gospel lesson today reminded me of Matthew Shepherd’s mom as someone who was transformed by the words of Jesus. Do you remember Matthew Shepherd? He was brutally beaten for being gay, beaten to death because one man felt that Matthew had made a pass at him. This man’s fragile masculinity caused him to run and get help from one of his friends to put Matthew in his place. The two of them beat Matthew over and over again. Then they tied him to a fence out in the country and left him alone in the freezing night. By the time someone found Matthew and got him to the hospital, it was much too late. Matthew died as hundreds held vigil outside the hospital.
The two men who killed Matthew were arrested, tried, and convicted of the brutal hate crime. When they were found guilty of first-degree murder, the judge had every right to sentence them to death in the state of Wyoming. But Matthew’s mother came before the judge and she asked the judge to spare the lives of the guilty men. Matthew’s Dad said that life in prison shows mercy to someone who showed no mercy. Can any of us here today truly understand the agony of Matthew Shepherd’s parents, or the pain they experienced in the months leading up to the trial? What father or mother could sleep with images of their beloved son tied to a fence, beaten and left alone in the cold night. What sort of people could do this to another human being? How did they muster the courage to ask for leniency when these wicked men showed none of that to their son?
The short answer, I think and confirmed by Matthew’s mom in a recent interview, is Jesus. Jesus led Matthew’s parents to ask for such an impractical thing. But there is more to it than that. Matthew’s parents had a choice. On one hand, they could have held on to their anger, their pain, their need to be vindicated, and they could have cheered when those two men breathed their last. I’m sure this would have felt good, but it would have perpetuated the cycle of violence that claimed their beloved son. Now, on the other hand, Matthew’ parents had the choice to cut the wicked rope, a rope which held them mercilessly like a boat tied to a dock while a storm raged and smashed the boat against the dock until it finally capsized. We know their choice. They followed Jesus and they cut the rope in order to venture into calmer waters where they could anchor themselves to the Lord for healing and restoration.
If what Matthew Shepherd’s parents did after the brutal death of their son does not resonate with you, think of the people from Mother Emanual AME church in Charleston, SC, who worshipped God and buried their dead on the morning of June 27, 2015, then, after leaving the cemetery, attended the funeral of the man who had entered their church during a prayer meeting to do nothing more than gun down their loved ones.
If that doesn’t strike you, think of the Amish community in Nickel Mines, PA, who, on the day that Charles Roberts murdered five of their children in the local school house, appeared at Roberts’ mother’s house with armloads of meals and bushel baskets upon bushel baskets of forgiveness.
Think about Bud Welch whose only daughter, Julie, was killed on April 19, 1995 in the bombing of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City, who only a year after the bombing built a covenantal relationship with Timothy McVeigh’s father, Bill. Welch said a few years ago, “On that Monday morning of June 11, 2001, in Terre Haute, Indiana, we took Tim McVeigh from his cage and we killed him and there was nothing about that process that brought me any peace.”
“Love your enemies,’ Jesus said, ‘do good to those who hate you.” My friends, God’s amazing grace paves the way for us so that one day we can all fully live into Jesus’ commands. Let’s not shrug these words off as something of a different place and time. Let’s not dismiss them as easier said than done. Let’s not imagine that it is just the work of saints like Matthew Shepherd’s parents, or the people of Mother Emmanuel, or Bud Welch, or the Amish in Pennsylvania. Let’s listen to them. Let’s realize that in them Jesus gives us the key to true freedom. Let’s daydream and envision a world where they are the rule and not the exception. All of us will face evil in this life, all of us have enemies, and we have a choice. We can either seek retribution, retaliation, and bring more violence and suffering into the world, or we can do as Jesus says. “Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.” Such love is not practical, but it changes the world and it changes those who seek every day to live in its high standards. May it be so for you and for me and for all creation. Amen.