Love is the true revelation of God by The Rev Rilla Barrett

SSE 2/19/17

Epiphany 7A
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Psalm 119:33-40
1Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Matthew 5:38-48

A pastor friend of mine had a ten-year old daughter whose reaction to today’s gospel was, “Dad…. I think Jesus was wrong….no offense.”  And, let’s face it, we’ve all had our doubts about phrases like, “if anyone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other also…” “and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well…” and “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile…” and “give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you….” And love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”  Really?  This is countercultural, to say the least.  And to some it sounds as if Jesus is telling us to be submissive to a fault. Maybe Jesus didn’t really mean this…maybe someone translated the Greek wrong?
The church has held the same suspicions and so has explained this passage in various ways.  I’ve heard a few of these explanations, like -

  • Jesus was setting forth values to which the disciples should aspire…impossible to attain, but by striving toward them, we are certainly living better than we would have had we not tried.
  • Or…we are better prepared for God’s grace with these impossible words and concepts
  • Or…Jesus’s advice to his disciples was given in a first-century world.  It simply does not hold in our world.

And these teachings of the church over the centuries certainly are a comfort to us who do not want to hear the truth…but they are, undoubtedly not what Jesus was attempting to say.  Jesus meant what he said in the Sermon on the Mount.  Matthew’s gospel, and especially the Sermon on the Mount always point to the same thing…Jesus means exactly what he says.  Matthew tells us repeatedly that to follow Jesus means to do what he says, and, therefore, these difficult words cannot be explained away. I’m sorry to say.
We have heard the famous antitheses these past two Sundays from the gospel lesson, “You have heard that it was said…., but I say to you….”  The world may tell you one thing, but I am telling you this…. Imitate God’s ways by doing these things
This you and I both know is not easy.  There are five admonitions in this gospel, five Love is always at the core of the response.  Jesus, and the Judaic law, taught, in many cases, not to retaliate against wrong doers. Love is the overriding element.  Imitation of God by loving neighbors, even enemies, is what Jesus teaches.  That and be perfect as you do it. 
However, this AGAPE…this self-giving love is not to be a passive love, a lay-down-and-submit love, an acceptance and acquiescence in the face of an assailants.  No…the main point here is noncooperation with harm….in all its forms.
·         For instance, the admonition to turn the other cheek. Some have assumed that this means to invite abuse.  Not so.  It was an offensive gesture to Jews in the ancient world to be slapped with the back of the right hand.  Turning the other cheek makes it impossible to be so slapped again.  Turning the other cheek then was a way of noncooperation with harm being done to you.
·         And, If anyone used the court system, a rigged system that favored the rich and connected, to sue you and take your coat, then give them your cloak as well.  Some have thought this meant that Jesus was telling his followers to  be abused by getting ripped off. No. In first century middle eastern culture… seeing a naked person was a dishonor to those who looked. So, this is what further noncooperation looked like.
·         And, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…. Some have suggested that this means only some enemies. No! Jesus encourages his community to love, to seek the welfare of, those who act as enemies. Every enemy, every time![1]
Love…or willing good for the other, even if the other is my enemy….is the way humans imitate God, said Jesus.  And, it is difficult, but it is an expectation for those who follow Jesus.   
The Rev. Terry Kyllo, colleague and friend, wrote an example of this in describing an incident in his work with his organization Neighbors in Faith, a partnership of Christian and Muslim neighbors here in Puget Sound.  In this group, much work is done around issues of Islamophobia.  In Terry’s words,
I am working with Muslims to learn how to respond to Islamophobia, a multi-million-dollar business in this country. I saw the effect of the Islamophobia industry firsthand recently, as six people from a local chapter came to a town hall to disrupt our event. We asked them to listen to the responses of our Muslim speakers. The Muslim speakers were both strong and patient, they were peaceful and resilient.
These six would not let them answer.
We sang, "We shall Overcome" to restore peace in the room.
These people may see us as enemies. But we see them as people who have been misled into fearfulness, and whose fearfulness has become enthroned on their hearts. Several Muslims approached them after the event asking if they would be willing to talk. They were not ready to do so.
But I cannot help but think that the invitation might change things, not today or tomorrow, but someday.
Sadly, we found out later from one of them, that they were paid by ACT for America to disrupt our event.”

Terry added, “As the majority religion in the US, Christians have a special responsibility to love our neighbors who are feeling vulnerable in our current environment. This includes refugees and new immigrants, the working class and middle class that feels like they are losing ground, Latinx, LGBTQ, and our Jewish and Muslims neighbors.” 
In a world filled with fear of “the other” there is awesome opportunity to love all our neighbors and to make that a verb….by doing love.
But what about a community’s intentional decision to do love? An NPR feature that I heard yesterday told such a story.  Two towns….
Cawker City, Kansas…brags at having the largest ball of twine in the world…but little else.  A small town that had three grocery stores in the 60’s, now has none, and most do their shopping is done online.  Career opportunities have dried up, so graduating teens can’t wait to get out of town.  This is a town that has very little diversity and has become insular as a community.    Not too far away is Garden City, Kansas.  Unlike Cawker City, Garden City is booming.  The demographics of the two small and similar towns could not be more different.  Garden City is the most diverse community in Kansas.  In such a small town (population 25,000+), there are 27 different languages spoken in the school district.  The main industry is food production -farming and ranching and processing, and it is a stable and growing industry. But…here’s the point.  According to a spokesperson, the town had a major turning point in the 1970’s when city, business and church leaders debated bringing in a meatpacking plant.  If the community decided no, they realized that Garden City could likely become another ghost town.  But…if they said yes, then the community would foster a vibrant community and economy…but it would mean bringing in all….” those people,” meaning immigrants, many poor, non-English speaking, who might need significant help getting their footing in a new culture.  They chose to invite in the diversity and to take a chance on this new industry in their town…but before they did, they intentionally asked themselves….” Are we going to count the people that come in as a blessing or a curse?” and as you might guess, they decided that to invite in diversity would be a blessing.  Now, years later, the meat-packing plant is a part of a town with a rip-roaring economy. They recognize today that it took persistence, effort and patience, but they have arrived at a place where they self-identify as a town with a pro-immigrant ethos.  Ahmed Hassan Ali, a young Somali meat packer, is at home in Garden City, and never wants to leave.  He said, “This town is so nice.  Also, the people in this town, they are so great people.  We love them.  And also, they love us, yeah, for sure.”  The love and acceptance of the other, by all groups, has created a tight-knit community in which all can call home. 
Love your enemies, (and that may mean those who push on your human vulnerabilities toward fear of the other) …. and pray for those who persecute you isn’t something you do without action connected to it.  It involves getting up and doing something.  What will that be?  It might even be that love in action is being with another in their dark times. 
 Toward the end of the 1999 movie The Hurricane, starring Denzel Washington, we find the lead character, professional boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, talking with a young boy named Lesra. Carter, a victim of the false testimony of a racist, is about to be re-tried after being unjustly convicted and imprisoned for twenty years. Rubin looks on the boy and says, "We've come a long way...little brother..."
And Lesra nods and says, "Rubin, I just want you to know--if this (trial) doesn't work, I'm bustin' you outta here..." "You are, huh?" says Carter. After a moment of silence, Carter gets quiet and says, "Hate put me in prison. Love's gonna bust me out."
And Lesra responds, "Just in case love doesn't, I'm gonna bust you outta here." And Carter laughs and reaches out, touches the boy's face, wipes away a tear and then clenches Lesra's hand. Then he whispers, "You already have, Lesra."[2] 
Lesra's love, love in action, had already freed Carter from that dark prison of despair and loneliness.”[2]
Love is the true revelation of God, and we, as followers of Jesus, are expected to put love in action toward every other person.  To whom will we each show God’s love this week?  Who needs to be freed from their dark prison? Who is that you and I may have avoided simply because they are different or because we don’t like them? With whom might we share the love of God? Love is the only answer, but it must be love in action. Jesus meant what he said.
Yesterday, February 18th, we celebrated the 461st anniversary of the death of Martin Luther, that great theologian and reformer of the Church.  Luther himself is credited with saying, “Grant that I may not pray alone with the mouth; help me that I may pray from the depths of my heart.” 
Grant, o God, that we may not speak love from the mouth, help us to love in action in all ways.  Amen.