On Wednesday and Thursday of each week I get to lead chapel for the two through four-year old students at our Epiphany Lutheran Nursery school.
We light candles, talk together, and sing, and I share the children’s sermon from the previous Sunday.
Since we are in the walking through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount here in the season of Epiphany, this past week in chapel we talked about ‘rules’ and contrary to my expectations, the kids got more excited talking about rules than almost any subject we’ve ever discussed.
It’s something they know an awful lot about, I guess, because they have so many rules everywhere they go.
So, I asked the children, “What are some rules you have here at school or at home?”
One boy said, “I have one, I have one: Walking feet!…you can’t run. You have to use your walking feet.”
A little girl said, “I have one, I have one: No biting!”
Another little boy said, “I have one, I have one: No playing with stray dogs!”
“…Or alligators!” said another little girl.
Why do we have rules? I asked.
And they know why:
“To help keep us safe.”
“So we don’t get hurt.”
“So everyone is taken care of.”
But when I ask, “Do you like following rules?”
They answer in unison, like a choir, “NoooOOooOOoo!”
If the truth is to be told, we may have the same reaction to Jesus and the ethic he presents for how we are to live.
We listen to this teaching and we ask: Would it be good if we all lived like this? And we say Yes. Would it benefit our lives and our community and our society and nation and world if we all lived this way? Absolutely.
But if we ask ourselves if we want to…and if we think we can live like this…we may find ourselves answering with the kids in the nursery school….in unison, like a choir, “NoooOOooOOoo!”
Maybe it helps to scratch the surface about what Jesus’ teachings meant in his own day.
Most commentators would say that for your right cheek to be struck – given that most people are right handed – we’re talking about a backhanded slap and therefore not a slap that hurt so much as was humiliating.
Maybe it makes this passage more meaningful to know that if someone were to sue you and take your coat and you give them your cloak as well (at least if you’re living in the first century) you are now standing in the courtroom completely naked and some say that would embarrass the crowd gathered and in some way shame them…though I think it would be mostly embarrassing to the person standing alone, naked.
Some historians remind us that it was common in Roman occupied Palestine for soldiers at any time to compel ordinary citizens to carry bags, goods, or anything else for Roman officials or the soldier themselves for up to a mile and so to carry a load a second mile would mean to alleviate another person from the burden of carrying the load that second mile.
Maybe, I guess it is possible, that these historical nuggets help us understand the times Jesus was living in a bit more, but honestly, the problem is not that we need a historian to erase the distance between us and the first century and to report in so we understand what Jesus really meant.
The problem is that without any trouble, we do understand what Jesus meant!
We understand: Jesus means love your enemies.
He means pray for those who abuse you.
He means love everyone…especially when it’s hard.
And we find ourselves unable or unwilling to live the way he asks us to live.
But here’s what we could overlook (or what I overlooked for years) about how Jesus asks us to live.
Jesus asks us to love actively.
In other words, our response to evil isn’t supposed to be passive.
In each of his examples, when someone hurts you it’s not as if you’re supposed to say, “okay, well, I’m just going to accept it. God wants me to do nothing. I’ll just receive whatever evil, pain, or hurt someone wants to inflict on me without responding.
We are supposed to respond actively:
If someone strikes your cheek…give them the other as well.
If someone demands your coat…give them your cloak as well.
If someone makes you go a mile…go a second mile.
If someone begs from you…give to them.
If someone wants to borrow from you…give them what they ask for.
We are called not to be powerless. We are not called to do nothing in the face of evil. We are called to act with the power of love.
And Jesus shows us what this means:
In the home of the high priest, when he was sentenced to death, when he was struck on the face and some slapped him, he could have summoned the power of God to get revenge but he acted with the power of love to walk where they led him.
And when the soldiers dressed him mockingly as a king and then stripped him naked he could have summoned his power to retaliate and make them pay, but he acted with the power of love, walking on to the cross.
When Simon of Cyrene carried the load of the cross for Jesus because he was to week, Jesus acted with the power of love, accepting the cross to carry the heavier burden of your sin and mine and the pain and suffering and brokenness of the whole world.
Evil in the world is real and Jesus has seen it up close. But Jesus shows us what it looks like to face evil in the world knowing that it is not final and that the power of God’s love will bring about a new reality.
Sometimes, always by God’s grace, we see glimpses of this new reality of God’s love acted out in front of our eyes:
In our own country, in living memory for some, during the struggle for Civil Right for all people, women, men, and children who were attacked with firehoses, dogs, discrimination, and legal segregation stood up to march peacefully, to sing songs of faith, and to go to jail. They stood up trusting that somehow God’s love would bring a new day.
So sometimes we see God’s power of love acted out.
In Geneva, Switzerland 154 years ago, this past Friday, a Swiss man named Henri Dunant formed a humanitarian organization after he was in northern Italy on a business trip during the last battle of the Italian war for independence where almost 40,000 people were killed or wounded all around him.
Dunant was stunned that no one – no one and no organization – was offering them any aid. He dropped what he was doing and began organizing the locals to help all the victims, regardless of their partisan affiliation. It became his life’s obsession; so much so that Dunant abandoned his business and eventually went bankrupt, but the organization he started is still called the Red Cross and is still a vehicle for the gift of healing in people’s lives.
So sometimes we see God’s power of love acted out.
I think of the very public act of forgiveness given to the 21-year-old who killed nine people in Charleston SC at a Bible study at Emmanuel AME Church and who was sentenced this past month.
Two days after the brutal killing the Rev. Anthony Thompson. Whose wife Myra was one of the victims, addressed the man the confessed killer in court. He said, “I forgive you and my family forgives you, but we would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent and confess and give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ, so that he can change it, can change your ways no matter what happens to you, and you’ll be okay.”
In that moment, two days afterwards, Pastor Thompson was concerned about the well-being of the man who had torn his life apart.
So, sometimes we can see the power of God’s love – flowing through people and visible to the world – giving love and forgiveness in the midst of suffering and hatred, and showing God’s ability to be present in the world through us.
But sometimes, we don’t see it. Sometimes God’s power of love is more hidden.
We often don’t see the husband who takes care of his wife in her recovery. She is in such pain that she’s often cross and unappreciative – she can’t help it – but the husband diligently cares for her and attends to her needs.
We don’t always see the teacher working long into the night preparing lessons to inspire young men and women who’s minds during class may be on other things.
We do not always see the parent who collects himself or herself in a quiet moment and continues to calmly, firmly, repeatedly care for the child who is ungrateful – because they can’t yet be – and who is unable to understand the love behind the instruction.
Sometimes the power of God’s love is hidden.
Today and each time the Spirit gathers us around the Table, the God’s power of love is hidden in bread and wine, given for us, Christ’s body and blood.
Look at it! It looks just like ordinary bread and wine, but it is the power of God. Here he forgives us and makes us one in Him.
Alone, we cannot forgive. Alone, we cannot love. Alone, we cannot pray for those who hurt us.
But because God gives his perfect love to us in Jesus Christ, we can try – and by his grace we can succeed – in letting Christ live in us so that his perfect love is born into the world through our life together.
On Friday I had lunch with a young man who is in middle school in our congregation who has questions about God and about faith.
I enjoy our time together because he is authentic, he asks good questions, I learn a lot from out time together, and I enjoy his company.
Over lunch he said, “Okay, I’m confused, because the church talks about doing good things and being more than what we are… So does God love us for who we are or do we have to do good stuff?”
What a wonderful question!
The answer, I think, is “YES!”
“YeeEEssSSss!!” God loves us just as we have been created…AND He wants us to do good stuff, because it makes for a good life – for us and for our neighbors.
Thanks and praise to our perfect God who loves us just as we are and loves us so much he wants more for us than we often want for ourselves.