This morning and over the past few weeks, we’ve heard an ongoing series of teachings where Jesus is offering a rule of life for those gathered around him to follow. Teachings that are leading us to look beyond ourselves, illustrating ways to live, to be examples for others, to practice “turning the other cheek” as Christ notes when we face moments of challenge. And there’s a lot more packed into the varied readings we’ve heard this morning. In our collect we hear “without love whatever we do is worth nothing,” In our reading from Leviticus, a call to “love your neighbor as yourself,” In Corinthians, an illustration of our true nature, “For God’s temple is holy, and YOU are that temple.” But the one thread I hear over and over is a call to enter into a more authentic practice of living, a call for us to gain an understanding of how to live in a state of radical love towards others. A love that I think can really push us to the limits of our abilities at times.
Jesus said: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” And “Be Perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect” – strong statements. The examples he offered to those gathered around him were difficult concepts to accept .To turn the other cheek would mean either being hit with the backside of someone’s right hand or to be hit with the palm of someone’s left hand, the ‘unclean’ hand in Jewish custom. Either of these were considered an insult.
Imagine if you will, living the experiences shared in today’s Gospel in today’s context, being sued by someone who in court win’s everything you own, and then having someone suggest you also give them the very clothes your wearing. Imagine shopping at the local Market Basket or Stop and Shop and being forced into carrying not only your bags, but having to walk the bags of a random stranger for a mile to their home because your ordered to, and someone suggests to you that instead of being angry about having to do it, you should offer to carry the bags a mile further for them without complaint.
Jesus has a unique way of opening peoples minds to an alternative way of living. In many of his teachings and stories we hear what we would consider pushing the envelope of sensibility, suggesting ways of looking at things that can be considered extreme. Sometimes he’ll offer a story so contrary to our expectations that we’re left mulling it over again and again in our heads. Examples like this mornings would fit into this style, where situations of oppression and retaliation existed in daily life and yet Jesus is telling people something contrary to the norm. In this portion of the sermon, Jesus is referring to the existing laws of the time, Babylonian and Jewish laws, also mirrored by the Roman empire used the phrasing “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” These laws of the time actually attempted to enforce, proportionate punishment to fit a crime versus revengeful retaliation.
Here in his sermon to those gathered around him, Jesus is suggesting In the face of retaliation, we are called to first seek reconciliation, an even stronger response than what the law calls for. In the Catechesis of our Book of Common Prayer this reconciliation is defined as the very mission of the church, to: restore all people to unity, with God and each other in Christ.
What’s being taught here is hard. Not something that comes naturally, but like prayer, with practice, reconciliation over retaliation is something we can achieve. I don’t think we should try to explain away Jesus’ difficult sayings. Liked it or not, difficult or not, they are an imitation of the ways of God; and getting us closer to God and realizing a change of heart in ourselves that creates an atmosphere of kindness, patience, generosity, and an open attitude towards all people.
When we turn the other cheek, when we love our enemy, we do something, the consequences of which we cannot immediately measure, but something noticeable enough that the created order moves just a little bit, a little closer to God, each time it happens. Rather than following a rule of life which dictates an eye for an eye retribution, we should, as Martin Luther King suggested seek reconciliation, understanding that: “The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.” In his work against racial discrimination and the violence surrounding the protests of his time, King noted that: “Time is cluttered with the wreckage of communities, which surrendered to hatred and violence. For the salvation of our nation and the salvation of mankind, we must follow another way. But we shall not in the process relinquish our privilege and our obligation to love.”
At a recent meditation workshop I attended at EDS, I found myself thinking about this understanding of reconciling love; an authentic love free from all preconditioned notions of what we as humans believe it should be. In this meditation, led by a professor of Buddhism and comparative theology from Boston College, he attempted to lead us towards a daily life of prayer and reconciliation. A life that highlights the innate goodness that exists in all of us as God’s creation. Living in this more authentic style, we begin to understand how to say “thank you for teaching me what I needed to learn” to those who at times challenge us, to awaken to the fuller reality of the person standing beside us, a human being of immeasurable worth in God’s eyes.
As I immersed myself into this guided meditation, I became aware of an awakening in me as I identified what our leader called spiritual benefactors in my life, those near and far, the energy of who’s love enters my body and mind, those who embody enlightenment for me. Faces of family, classmates, friends, of people here. And I was surprised at the some of the faces that appeared before me, one in particular a person who I’ll admit “pushes my button,” someone I tend to avoid encountering because I refuse to turn the other cheek to her. What our instructor opened up for me was a reconciliation of sorts, as I began to understand that I was starting to interrupt the self centered habits I created around this individual. I began to think about her in a deeper more mature way, and I found myself surprised as I reflected on the struggles she faces in her life, and as I sat there reconciling the nature of my relationship with her, I found myself admitting that I actually would be willing to “go a second mile” with her. This two hour meditation reminded me that I need this type of daily spiritual discipline to live a more authentic loving life, offering myself to be fully present for others.
Most of us can recognize moments when someone’s “pushed our button,” pushed us to a point where we’re challenged to be in perfect relationship with them. When we feel it’s better to walk away, to avoid bumping into someone, to tackle an issue head on. The times when we really don’t feel we’re as “perfect” a person as Christ calls us to be or that we feel we should be. And that’s ok… we’re human. We need to acknowledge that being perfect as God is, is not a goal that most of us will ever reach. The point is, is that we realize we are on a path towards that perfection, a journey, always moving in that direction. That we continually try to be the best that we can be. To be holy as God is holy and live in harmony with the world that God has created. To continually seek more of God’s grace, so that we can become all that God intends us to be. Jesus sees more for our lives than we often see for ourselves. He sees all that we are and all that we can become as children of God. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The good news is that this is not so much about becoming something that we are not, but about becoming what we already are, what God in his joy for us has always intended and envisioned for our lives. It is the purpose, and goal, and intention for our lives, the perfection to which we are called.
This perfection is not, however, an escape from the reality of our world or ourselves. Becoming perfect as Jesus wishes us to be happens as much in the chaos, and pain of life, and messiness of relationships with others, as it does the good times we experience. Living into an authentic life means if you want to be loved, start loving others who need your love….If you want others to sympathize with you, start showing sympathy to those around you. If you want to be respected, you must learn to be respectful to everyone, both young and old. And whatever you want others to be, first be that yourself. And then Bit by bit, step by step in our journeys, we become all that God intends us to be, perfect as our heavenly father is perfect. Amen