“Be Perfect” and Other Impossible Feats, Matthew 5:38-48, February 19, 2017, FPC Holt

“Be Perfect” and Other Impossible Feats
Matthew 5:38-48
February 19, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

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Alright, we’re going to play a game, Let’s call it Matthew 5. When you hear something that applies to you, raise your hand:

Who out there has given clothing to a friend?

Who has gone the extra mile to help someone out that is close to you?

Who has given money to someone you care about?

Now, who has given clothing to someone you really don’t like?

How about going the extra mile, who has gone above and beyond to help someone who has gone out of their way to be unkind to you?

What about money, who has given money to someone who they don’t trust at all?

Okay, now raise your hand if you are perfect.

When we really think about the practical applications of this text, it’s a hard one to follow.  It’s made harder by the fact that we probably don’t name those around us the same way this text does.

2017-2-19-slide-2-enemyWho is your enemy? Perhaps someone popped into your head immediately. If so you may be thinking, guess I’m really failing that, “be perfect,” test? Or maybe not. I’d like us to think about this for a minute. Who is your enemy? You might be sitting there thinking, “oh, this doesn’t apply to me, I don’t have any enemies,” but let’s really think about it. Who is it that has caused you pain? Who has acted unjustly in your life? Who has caused pain to those you love? Whose actions diminish your way of living?

2017-2-19-slide-3-jesus-preachingJesus does something interesting in this text. He doesn’t say “don’t have enemies,” or “avoid evildoers,” in fact Jesus says “do not resist an evildoer,” and “love your enemy.” Because it’s in the past we can fall into thinking that it was a simpler time. I know those pictures I’ve seen of Jesus preaching have everyone in rapt attention. No one questioning, no one doubting. Everyone on his side. 2017-2-19-slide-4-jesus-crucifixion I remember hearing about the crucifixion when I was younger and thinking, “why on earth did they kill Jesus?” “what did they think that he had done?” “wasn’t he nice to everyone?”

What I didn’t know then, and what I’ll likely always be trying to understand, is that if you are nice to some people, there are others who won’t like you very much. And if you profess loyalty to God’s kingdom of justice through equality, those who benefit from being on top really don’t want you around. There really aren’t just the good guys and the bad guys that we may boil things down to for the sake of Veggie Tales and children’s books. There are so many more nuances in between, and perspective is everything. How can we love those so against who we are and what we are?

2017-2-19-slide-5-karoline-lewisLuther Seminary professor, Karoline Lewis wrote, “Loving your enemies will not sit well with most… First, you have to determine just who those enemies are. They are often not the obvious suspects… Our enemy has indeed become our neighbor, or so we think… We suspect those we never did. We question those who we thought were our friends. We look differently at those that others have said, ‘Do you really know who they are?’”

2017-2-19-slide-6-fear-of-the-otherI know there have been times in this current political climate where I have felt wary of those around me with symbols and clothing that have designated them to be of a different ideology than me. Though never threatened directly, I didn’t feel entirely safe to be who I was, where I was. And if I feel this way as a Christian, white, cisgendered, heterosexual American female citizen with european ancestry living in a small town, you know there are many in other demographics who feel exponentially less safe than I do, those whose demographics place them automatically on the “other” list for a majority of the people they interact with every single day. Many have enemies, not of their own choosing, but who are self-identified by their proclamations of xenophobic opposition and hate.

2017-2-19-slide-7-boyd-bookIn his challenging book, “The Myth of a Christian Nation,” Gregory Boyd writes, “While people in the kingdom of the world usually do good to those who do good to them, followers of Jesus are called to do good even to those who harm them (Luke 6:34-35). When struck on the cheek, we are to offer up the other (Luke 6:29). When asked by an oppressive Roman guard to carry his equipment one mile, we are to offer to carry it two (Matthew 5:41). Understood in their original context, these teachings do not tell us to allow people to abuse us, as though we are to love our enemies but not ourselves. To the contrary, Jesus is giving us a way by which we can keep from being defined by those who act unjustly toward us. When we respond to violence with violence, whether it be physical, verbal, or attitudinal, we legitimize the violence of our enemy and sink to his level. When we instead respond unexpectedly—offering our other cheek and going a second mile—we reveal, even as we expose the injustice of his actions, that our nemesis doesn’t have the power to define us by those actions. (p. 39-40)”

2017-2-19-slide-8-mlkThis is the very principle that spurred Martin Luther King Jr. to found a movement of nonviolent resistance, and the very thing that made it so powerful. Hate is the expected response to hate. Confront pain with peace and it is thrown off balance. Are we really to love our enemies? What would that love even look like?

2017-2-19-slide-9-buechnerPresbyterian theologian, Frederick Buechner wrote, “Jesus says we are to love our enemies and pray for them, meaning love not in an emotional sense but in the sense of willing their good, which is the sense in which we love ourselves. It is a tall order even so. African Americans love white supremacists? The longtime employee who is laid off just before he qualifies for retirement with a pension love the people who call him in to break the news? The mother of the molested child love the molester? But when you see as clearly as that who your enemies are, at least you see your enemies clearly too. You see the lines in their faces and the way they walk when they’re tired. You see who their husbands and wives are, maybe. You see where they’re vulnerable. You see where they’re scared. Seeing what is hateful about them, you may catch a glimpse also of where the hatefulness comes from. Seeing the hurt they cause you, you may see also the hurt they cause themselves. You’re still light-years away from loving them, to be sure, but at least you see how they are human even as you are human, and that is at least a step in the right direction. It’s possible that you may even get to where you can pray for them a little, if only that God forgive them because you yourself can’t, but any prayer for them at all is a major breakthrough.”

2017-2-19-slide-10-confrontationToo often we believe conflict avoidance is the way to be a Christian, but avoiding our enemy gets us no closer to being able to love them. Our scripture says “do not resist an evildoer,” no, instead Christ invites us to draw closer to them, to offer our other cheek, and our cloak, and to walk that extra mile. Martin Luther King Jr. brought about a movement of nonviolent resistance. It wasn’t violent, but it was still confrontation.

How can we faithfully confront hate without allowing ourselves to reflect that same hate? How can we use our opposition to unmask our enemies rather than drive them further away? What would it mean to really and truly know your enemies?

2017-2-19-slide-11-accidental-courtesyAfrican American musician Daryl Davis has spent his life working to figure this out. I recently saw his story in an incredibly thought-provoking documentary, “Accidental Courtesy.” He seeks out members of the Klu Klux Klan and asks over and over again, “How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?” His passion is meeting and befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan in an attempt to change their minds and forge racial conciliation.

2017-2-19-slide-12-davisIn the documentary, Davis says, “Let’s say you and 20 other people have this group that is anti-racist and all you do it talk about how bad racism is, what good is that group doing? All you’re doing is preaching to the choir. If you and I agree, I’m not accomplishing anything by trying to convince you of which you already know. The way you resolve that is you invite somebody to the table who disagrees with you and so you can understand why they have that point of view. Then, perhaps, you will figure out a solution to dissuade our fears.”

His words echo that of Jesus in our text, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?”

2017-2-19-slide-13-davis-handshakeDavis most certainly practices what he preaches, going out of his way time and time again to come alongside members of the KKK and learn what it is that motivates their white supremacist beliefs. He told a story of helping the family of a klansman to visit the man in prison and the way that his care for them, even and especially in the face of their hate, enabled him to change their minds and hearts.

2017-2-19-slide-14-mlk-quoteMartin Luther King Jr. once said, “every word and deed must contribute to an understanding with the enemy and release those vast reservoirs of goodwill which have been blocked by impenetrable walls of hate.”

Hand on shoulder, close-up

Hand on shoulder, close-up

Let’s think about that “enemy,” that you identified earlier. Let’s use some different questions this time. What pain has your enemy experienced? What has shaped their sense of justice? How is their life diminished by the absence of your story and experience?

2017-2-19-slide-16-compassionI’ll admit, I don’t know the answers to these questions. I’m still figuring out what this radical vulnerability in the face of an enemy would look like in my life, but by the power of the Holy Spirit, I believe wholeheartedly, that our efforts to show love and compassion in the face of hate are not in vain.

2017-2-19-slide-17-perfectionBe perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We hear these words and feel inadequate, but this word that we have translated in the text as “perfect,” can also be translated as “complete.” 2017-2-19-slide-18-puzzleWhen we seek the wellbeing of those who do not seek the same for us, we do come closer to the completeness only found when two sides meet to form a whole. May we ever seek to bring about the perfection God desires for us, so it may be on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

 

Here is a trailer for the documentary I reference:

The full-length film is available here till the end of February 2017.

“Beloved in the Wilderness,” Mark 1:9-13, February 22, 2015, FPC Holt

“Beloved in the Wilderness”
Mark 1:9-13
February 22, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

“Beloved” video reflection by the kids of X-team, shown in worship before this sermon.

Audio of sermon available by clicking here.

2015 2 22 Slide01How do you pack for a trip? Do you have a checklist you go through, meticulously making sure to attend to every wardrobe detail and amenity? Or do you do my dad’s method, working head to toe, thinking through every detail of what he would need for a trip, contacts, toothbrush, shirts…you get the idea.

Depending on where you’re going the list might change. As my sister was packing for her honeymoon in Jamaica this past week she certainly packed differently than I did when I was headed towards Cincinnati for her wedding.

Your packing list can also change depending on how much room you have to pack. I know several members of the Tres M trip packed very strategically to make sure they could get all of their personal items as well as donations of toothbrushes and soccer balls, some packing, weighing, and repacking till they got it just right. My parents sometimes go on camping trips on my dad’s motorcycle and they have to be very creative in the packing of the small trunk on the back of the bike, prioritizing camping equipment over a diversity of clothing.

2015 2 22 Slide02But, what about when you are unsure of your destination? How do you pack for an uncertain future? There are times when all the list making in the world cannot prepare you for what is to come, when what is needed are not things, but strength and hope-filled conviction.

2015 2 22 Slide03Just a few moments ago we watched a video of our X-Team kids, telling us about how they understand what it means to be “beloved.” One of the things this church does very well is that from an early age the children, youth, and adults of this church hear and recite the affirmation that they are a beloved child of God. It was a joy to interview the X-team kids and to have the opportunity to hear how this message has become a part of them, and how it frames their views of how they should care for others, and how God cares for them.

In our scripture today, Jesus received this affirmation for himself, we read: “just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”

2015 2 22 Slide05It’d be a nice and happy place to end our scripture passage, basking in the love-drenched identity of Jesus as beloved child of God. It’s tempting to tack on an “and then they all lived happily ever after, Amen!” to the end of it, close the book and go on our merry way. But that’s not our reality, and that’s not our scripture.

In the very next verse Mark’s gospel tells, “and the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” So much for a happy baptism day. Certainly somebody could’ve thrown him a brunch beforehand at least. But no, Mark’s gospel doesn’t allow for that, and Jesus is immediately thrust into the wilderness.

If you heard me preach on Mark’s gospel a few weeks ago you’ll remember that “immediately,” is a favorite word of this gospel, God’s action is decisive and encompassing.

2015 2 22 Slide08Though these two snapshots of Jesus’ life, baptism and wilderness, may seem incongruent, I would argue that they are actually a very important pairing. When Jesus goes into the wilderness it is not as one lost and alone, but as one claimed as beloved, as one accompanied by the Holy Spirit. This is foundational to our own life in God as well: claimed by God, we face the world; confronted by the world, we are sustained by our identity as God’s beloved.

2015 2 22 Slide09 If you visit my office, and I hope you will if you haven’t yet, you’ll see on the wall several pieces of art by one of my favorite artists, Brian Andreas. His whimsical, child-like drawings feature stories in the form of anecdotes, vignettes, and snippets of conversation. Brian Andreas is able to capture emotional truths in just a handful of words. For me, the prints on my wall nod towards my own theological understandings of how I understand God and God’s relationship with us.

2015 2 22 Slide10Here’s one of the prints, right from my wall. It says “I’m not here to keep you from the places you feel you need to go, she said. When you’re ready, I’m here to remind you of the way home.”

I believe this is God’s intention for our lives, to love us in and through our every wilderness, providing a light in darkness, manna-sustenance in our journeying, and a way home for every prodigal son or daughter.

2015 2 22 Slide11This is why we as a church go to such lengths to affirm the call that each of you is a beloved child of God. We hope that this church will be a place where you feel the baptismal waters rush over you, where you experience God’s love through the love of your Christian brothers and sisters. And then, when you are confronted with the wilderness of this world, the darkness that you will inevitably face, that you are fortified for those journeys by the love of God and the deeply rooted knowledge that you are a beloved child of God.

2015 2 22 Slide12One of the ways that we are seeking to deepen our affirmation of God’s claim on our life this Lenten season is to state what we believe on these pieces of paper, so that our experiences of God might live on into 2065 when our time capsule is opened for those Presbyterians of Holt who will then be celebrating 200 years together as a congregation.

SLIDE 13 - BOCConfessional statements can be their own sort of spiritual tool for our journeying, allowing us to claim our identity in God and confront the world around us. As we have been addressing our denomination’s Book of Confessions throughout this year it’s been revelatory to see how each confession has been shaped by the theological, social, and political issues of their time.

SLIDE 14 - Theological Declaration of BarmenMost recently, I taught a class on the Theological Declaration of Barmen, the panel of which we rose today. It is an apt confession to be paired with our scripture today as well as with this, the first Sunday of Lent. The Barmen was written in a very dark wilderness time, as Adolph Hitler was rising to power in 1930s Germany. In all times, the world offers untruths about our identities and value as individuals, but in 1930s Germany these untruths were amplified and propagated to a devastating and horrific extent, as racism and nationalism superseded humanity. It is staggering to be confronted with the terrors of that dark time in history.

SLIDE 15 - Preaching in Hitler’s ShadowTo gain some sense of the Christian resistance to Hitler in the context of that time I read various sermons in an anthology called, “Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich.” In it was a sermon by Gerhard Ebeling, preached at the funeral of a 34 year old German man who was systematically killed by the German government because they saw him as unworthy of life, a view so abhorrent it is hard to fathom in our context, but was indoctrinated in many Germans at that time under the banner of national strength.

With this man’s grieving parents before him, Ebeling preaches, “God’s love…burns for the lost and leaves the ninety-nine for the sake of the one lost sheep in order to take that one on the arm and to care for it and to rejoice over it. So special is God’s love that this love does not love those who are worthy of it but rather those who have special need of it…. I am compelled to speak and testify: that Jesus stands on the side of these little ones, for us little ones: ‘Do not despise one of these little ones.’ Jesus stands up for the life of the weak, the sick, and the vulnerable. Not only with words and expressions of sympathy but with action. He healed the sick, he gave love and companionship to the despised and rejected sinners….We must testify today to this work of Christ in the midst of our world so that we never despise one of the little ones, that we do not abandon those Christ has accepted and for whom he died.”[1]

SLIDE 16 - BibleWhile I cannot begin to comprehend the depth of wilderness surrounding Ebeling and this grieving family at this time, these are gospel words that are familiar to me, that speak hope into our world today, and whatever is to face us in the future. This is what the church is about, drawing close to that message of a love that never abandons or forsakes us, giving us the strength of the Gospel to stand in the face of whatever may come.

We are indeed beloved children of God, and so I ask you to join in the message our children know so well.  Let us read on the screens, inserting our own names as we go. “I [state your name], am a beloved child of God.” And all God’s children say: Amen.

[1] Dean Garrett Stroud, ed., Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013), 139.