Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, February 19, 2017, Lectionary A
The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr.+ Rector – Scripture: Matthew 5:38-48
“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Acts 4:30
God is Great!
Let us pray. Heavenly, loving Father, send now the Holy Spirit to fill us with your love so that we might increasingly love others through Jesus Christ our Lord who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever. Amen.
Suddenly, the news services go bananas (at least more than usual). The video feed shows a mad dash of people running for cover. Police are shouting, waving their arms while sirens wail in disbelief. There has been an attack. We know the tragic, bloody scene all too well. There has been an explosion, the rat-a- tat-tat of automatic weaponry, the flash of a knife, or the mad scene of a truck, cutting through the crowd like some kind of bizarre lawn mower.
Was it yet another terrorist attack? The so-called authorities are reluctant to say, even if they know. We wonder why the news media is so reluctant to spare us the gory details. Surely, they are not concerned about offending our delicate sensibilities when that is done in some many other ways. Are they afraid they might encourage us to really care about what is going on in the world; that we might try to do something about it. Is this why they keep the news at a PG13 rating? How are we to know what is going on if we cannot see it?
You may remember the terrorist attack in Nice, France in July of 2016. Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, 31, a delivery-truck driver from Tunisia, drove a nineteen ton truck through a crowd during tourist season, killing 84, at least ten of which were children, and wounding better than 200. Shepherd Smith on Fox News kept referring to what he was seeing tweeted about the horrific event. Telling myself that I needed to see this, not for some perverse reason, but in order to see for myself, I went to Twitter and was able view some of the video taken by bystanders. It was indeed a gruesome, unsettling sight.
The media, in hopes of sanitizing these gruesome terrorist attacks, suggest possible “you can relate to it” type motives for the slaughter—a girlfriend problem, a feeling of alienation, a broken home, having been bullied, being isolated—some kind of psychological mumbo jumbo. Reluctantly they report an eyewitness account; “I heard him yell, ‘Allah u Ackbar,” then he began firing into the crowd.” Could the evidence, could the motive be any clearer?
Is it so evident that we are blind to it? Is it right there before our very noses? My mother used to put it this way after I thought I had lost something, but found it in a very obvious place: “If it had been a snake it would have bitten you.” What is the it to which we are blind?
Oftentimes a thing’s basic character can be captured by a few simple words.
Those words subsequently become synonymous with that thing. Nicknames are like that. The character of an individual is summed up in a single word such as the Duke for John Wayne or Honest Abe. The same reductionist principal can apply to an institution and in fact maybe encouraged under the idea of a mascot—the Georgia Bulldogs for example.
What words then might capture something about the basic character and consequent behavior of these terrorist attacks? The words, though in English, are right there in the sermon title this morning. In fact, we have grown to dread hearing those words. They are Allah u Ackbar. Translated from the Arabic, they mean God is great. At first glance we have no problem with that idea. Yes, we believe God is great, but is that how God defines Himself through Jesus? When we think of someone being great, what is the image that conjures?
We might think of Muhammad Ali, who used to bellow, using the superlative of great, “I am the greatest.” At what was he the greatest? Beating people up, knocking them out. (I am not trying to denigrate Ali here, merely provide an example.) Needless to say, identifying oneself or someone else as great sets that one above others, wherein others maybe used or even abused by that someone. If our scripture ears are turned on, we might remember Jesus’ words from Matthew 18:4: “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”Then in Matthew 23:11 we read this:“The greatest among you will be your servant.”
Imagine if instead these terrorist believed, God is love rather than God is great. Would they still have pulled that trigger or exploded that bomb, killing so many? Yes, the Christian God, our God, is great, but who He is, His nature, is summed up with these three words: God is love. What a painful and stark contrast to the Muslim notion of their god being great, justifying, indeed, mandating killing in the name of that god rather than loving in his name.
The Christian identification of God as love is an important distinction, clearly defining Him against the god of any other faith. He is love above else. His character of love stands against that which is great, not by fighting, not by killing, not by destroying, but by humbly loving. Unknowingly, we observed an example, an historical example of that this past week.
Tuesday, as you know, was Valentine’s Day—that curious cultural practice of giving cards, flowers, candy, and other gifts as tokens of affection and love for those special ones in our lives. The genesis of Valentine’s Day, while indeed affirming love, began for reasons that might be unfamiliar—indeed, one of Christian martyrdom.
St. Valentine, from whom the name of Valentine’s Day is taken, was a priest during the time of the Roman emperor Claudius who persecuted the early church. He had issued an edict that prohibited the marriage of young people. This was based on the premise that unmarried soldiers fought better than married soldiers since married soldiers might be afraid of what would happen to their wives or families if they died in battle.
The Rome in which Valentine lived was a very permissive society, like ours today. Polygamy was more the norm than that of one woman and one man living together. The early church, though, believed and mostly still does that marriage was between one man and one woman for life. Claudius’ edict created a problem for the Christian church. What was to be done about it?
Valentine’s solution was to secretly marry couples. Eventually, though, he was discovered, imprisoned and tortured for performing weddings. A Roman official who judged him was a man named Asterius, whose daughter, as it happened, was blind. Valentine prayed for and healed the young girl and as a result Asterius himself became Christian. Even so, in the year 269 AD, Valentine was sentenced to a three part execution by beating, stoning, and finally decapitation because of his stand on Christian marriage. The story goes that the last words he wrote were in a note to Asterius’ daughter were signed, “From your Valentine.” The Roman Emperor Claudius was great, but his greatness did not defeat the love of God, lived out through the life and ministry of St. Valentine.
“Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” So we heard Jesus tell us in this morning’s gospel from St. Matthew.
Jesus words “Go also the second mile,” would have especially upset His Jewish listeners. The hated Roman soldiers were used to calling Jewish men out of the crowd and saying in effect, “Here, Jew-boy: put on this backpack, and walk behind me for the next mile. You’re going to be my mule today!” It was shameful. It was humiliating, yet it was common enough in those days of military occupation. The most uncouth Roman soldier from a distant province could do that to the most distinguished rabbi. Naturally, the Jews hated that sort of thing, as would anyone else. So, Jesus’ teachings this morning are shocking and surprising. They were shocking and surprising back then and they are shocking and surprising today. Would we really invite someone to hit us again—turn the other cheek? If someone wants to sue us are we not to call our lawyers, but instead give that person whatever he or she wants.
To Jesus’ listeners, indeed to us, it must have seemed as if He had flipped His lid, gone bonkers (good thing He did not run for political office.) There is, however, a certain ingenious psychology at work here. If you put on that Roman backpack, grumbling all the while, dropping it at the mile-marker, then the Roman soldier has succeeded in making you his inferior—a beast of burden. That was the fun of it for him.
On the other hand, if you did not stop after the first mile, but went on for a second, then you’re going to have that soldier so confused, that he won’t know what’s going on. The whole structure of the world as he saw it, a structure that makes him greater than you in the imperial pecking order — no longer applied. You would have stepped right out of that pecking order.
Jesus introduces an entirely new ethic, an ethic of love, rather than greatness. The old ethic of “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” no longer applies. The ethic of contention and battle no longer applies—the ethic of I am greater than you, no longer applies. This is a tough one for us. We live in a “you must win” culture. Not to win is more than losing a title or status. It can mean loss of livelihood, loss of friendship, even loss of life.
The “eye for an eye” ethic has a distinguished history. The oldest occurrence is in the ancient Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. If someone gouged out your eye, you or your kinsman was entitled to track the perpetrator down and gouge out his eye in revenge. If someone knocked out your tooth, then you were entitled to hit him as many times as necessary until one of his teeth was dislodged.
In some cultures, this business of officially sanctioned vengeance is so deeply ingrained that blood-feuds can go on for years, even generations. Sometimes the combatants even forget why they are fighting. The Code of Hammurabi, however, wasn’t drafted in order to give vengeance free rein, but rather to set some limits. “You’ve got to stop at just one eye.”
There’s no doubt about it, though: “Turn the other cheek” is a difficult teaching. All it takes is a little flare-up of anger and our best intentions of loving our neighbor go up in smoke. You know how it is. Someone tramples on our sensibilities in a small or big way, like when driving a car. He or she passes us in a reckless way, immediately slips into the lane in front of us, immediately slows down, never mind the one-finger peace sign.
Doesn’t that just drive us nuts? It makes us want to retaliate in some way. We could lean on the accelerator, zoom past the miserable offender, pull right in front of him or her and slow down ourselves. The urge for vengeance is almost universal. We all feel its insistent tug; we hear its seductive voice in a hissing whisper: “Are you going to let that person get away with it?”
Preacher and novelist Frederick Buechner makes this observation: “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back — in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton (leftover) at the feast is you.”
Jesus though tells us to love our enemy and pray for those who persecute us. Do we really want to love and pray for Islamic terrorist or anyone else who might and does harm us? What kind of response is that?
I like this story from the Anglican Diocese of Wellington in New Zealand posted on February 8, of this year. “Listening to God’s voice and following His lead was a strong theme at last month’s New Wine festival on the Kāpiti Coast. It was no exception in Firewire, the youth zone where over 100 teenagers gathered twice daily to play games, worship God and receive amazing ministry from various speakers.
Perhaps, the most unexpected and surprising opportunity to follow God’s leading came as a gang-affiliated youth (a potentially dangerous individual for sure) walked in off the street looking for a place to get drunk. The young man heard contemporary worship music and assumed it must be a Shihad or an alternative rock gig – but when Diocesan Youth Co-coordinator Luke Paynter and his co-leaders spotted that he didn’t have a New Wine wristband, they escorted him outside to question him. That’s when his story began to unfold.
He had lost his job in the last few days, and his future wasn’t bright. His dad, a gang member himself, didn’t take too kindly to the news, and gave his son ‘the bash’ or boot. Reaching breaking point, the young man went looking for somewhere to drown his sorrows. As the young man told his story, Luke and his co-leaders offered to pray with him. Luke shared the experience.
‘At the end (of praying) I felt (I should) give him a hug, so I said ‘This is going to sound strange, but I feel really strongly that God just wants me to give you a hug right now, and for you to know that God is a loving father and that you are a loved son.’ At that point the young gang member responded, ‘That’s all I want right now is someone to give me a hug.’
This young man’s encounter with his loving heavenly Father was perhaps the most striking of God-encounters at the New Wine festival. Indeed, this story has a happy ending – the young man handed over his gang colours to the leaders and said “can you take this for me? [The gang] isn’t my family. I’m part of a bigger and better family.’”
The ancient Chinese sage Confucius once said “If you devote your life to seeking revenge, dig two graves,” meaning one was for your enemy and one was for you. Jesus knows this as he says to his disciples, to you and me “Turn the other cheek.” He wants to save us from that damage. He wants to show us another way — a difficult way, to be sure, a forgiving and loving way — but the only way that truly leads to freedom. Even more, in Jesus’ teachings this morning, He is telling us to be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect. Who is our heavenly Father, what is His character? Is it greatness, yes, but not most importantly? Rather, in three simple words, He is love, perfect love. So, too, are we to be. We are to be loving even in the worst of circumstances. That is to be our greatness, as indeed it was Jesus’.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.