The Way of Peace
This sermon is based on the Gospel reading for the day (19 February 2017) in the lectionary and was given by Geoff Pound at the St Kilda/Elsternwick Baptist Church on the occasion of the farewell of Alan and Jenny Marr and the Sunday that marked Alan’s retirement from pastoral ministry.
Reading: Matthew 5: 38-48
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, 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.
42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Will Campbell, the provocative writer and activist in the Civil Rights Movement was serving as theologian-in-residence at the Duke Divinity School. It was his last Sunday. It was his final sermon in the University chapel. Even though a storm had swept the countryside the night before, the chapel was packed. They’d come along again to hang on his every word.
Will Campbell was dressed plainly that morning. When it came time for the sermon, he clambered up into the pulpit and said:
“We had an ice storm last night. Lots of trees are down. Lots of poor people in this town. The electricity is off. They’ve got no heat.”
“I got my pickup outside, my chain-saw and my wood axe. I'm going out to cut some firewood from those trees to help those poor people. Who's going with me?”
With those words, he stepped out of the pulpit, clomped down the aisle in his boots and the big chapel doors slammed shut. The people were left in silence, wondering how they might respond to his invitation and their community in need.
Jesus has been teaching his new followers. Before he goes down the mountain saying ‘Who’s going with me’ he prepares them for what they’re going to encounter.
His words aren’t just to be heard. They’re to be done.
His teaching is so concrete and specific.
In the preceding section and now in this passage Jesus follows this formula six times:
“You have heard that it was said….but I say to you.”
Jesus shows a continuity with the tradition of the Hebrew teachers and prophets but he probes more deeply and he takes them much further.
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’
39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;
They’d read it in the Torah (Exodus 21:24-25).
If you knock out someone’s eye you would lose your eye in punishment.
This tit for tat law tailored the punishment to fit the crime.
When someone strikes us or hurls an insult, our natural inclination is to hit back but Jesus calls for a new way. He’s not urging someone in an abusive relationship to stick it out while they’re pummelled to a pulp.
Jesus calls an end to this never-ending cycle of retaliation.
He’s not suggesting that we passively become a punch bag or a door mat but he’s positively urging non-violent resistance.
I want to say on this day of farewells and thanks, that one of the great gifts that Alan Marr has brought to us is the gift of peace making. I’m sure you’ve seen him in action here at St Kilda/Elsternwick but many of us have seen him do mediation with churches that are split. Whenever we’ve needed training in conflict resolution, Alan has been the first person we’ve asked.
With parties in conflict and people at loggerheads, Alan shows remarkable courage at standing in the cross fire. Not just standing by but confronting issues, holding people to account and challenging them to find a way forward.
I loved hearing the reflections of Congressman, John Lewis in conversation with Krista Tippett. Lewis was at the core of the non-violent resistance in the United States. He led the first Selma March on what became known as Bloody Sunday.
He talked of his faith, the influence of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jnr. When he got involved in the struggle he and the others studied. They prepared. Every Tuesday night in his Methodist church they studied Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. They studied what Gandhi attempted to do in South Africa and what he accomplished in India.
They would act it out with different ones harassing you, calling you by name, pulling you off your seat, someone kicking you, someone pretending to spit on you and poor water over you. Lewis said, ‘They were trained to look the aggressor in the eye, to try and smile. It was their way of saying to the enemy, you may beat me but I’m not an object. I am human.’
Turning the other cheek gives an opportunity to look the aggressor in the eye but it doesn’t come naturally.
We have to be taught the way of peace. We have to learn the way of non-violence.
40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; [i.e. your undergarment]
This too, is counter-cultural. Often a coat was left at the shop as collateral. But gift-wrapping your best cloak and giving it to the enemy is a refusal to be humiliated. Standing almost naked is a way of seizing the initiative and exposing the whole corrupt system.
In this last month, we’ve seen the Women’s March on Washington and thousands of women wearing pink pussy hats. Such a creative way of saying, ‘You may try to take away our rights and seize our freedom but you’re not going to grab our dignity’.
41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
Jesus is not only talking of one to one conflict. He’s revealing Palestinian life under the Roman Empire when the state is the enemy. Roman police could seize any citizen and coerce them into carrying a load for one mile just as Simon of Cyrene was compelled to carry Jesus’ cross (Mark 15:21; Matt. 27:32). Jesus says that when this happens, go the second mile!
Somehow we’ve got to creatively translate this into our own context when our government coerces and oppresses the most vulnerable.
42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
That is, treat beggars and borrowers as if they were part of your family.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’
44 But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’.
While the Jewish law might have said: ‘Love your neighbour’, Jesus insists that this love and command applies to everyone, everywhere. For when we love our enemies, there are no longer ‘neighbours and ‘enemies’ but simply people who are all God’s children.
Several years ago, a shooter entered a one-room Amish school in rural Pennsylvania. He fired at the young students, killing five before shooting himself. News of this incident stunned the world but what was also surprising was the news that within hours, the Amish community had forgiven the killer and his family.
The Amish people visited the gunman's widow giving food and flowers and hugging members of his family. Many of them (including parents of the slain children) attended the killer's funeral and they contributed to a fund for his family.
There were few words, for it was primarily their hugs, their gifts, and their presence, that communicated their love and forgiveness.
For most people, a decision to forgive comes – if ever – at the end of a long emotional journey that may stretch over months if not years. The Amish invert the process. Forgiveness is a decided issue. It is front-loaded.
Their faith is grounded in these teachings of Jesus that we read today, to love your enemies, to reject revenge, and leave vengeance in the hands of God.
Forgiving those who have hurt us is tough work.
Some might be motivated by the truth in the Lord’s Prayer that "If we don't forgive, we won't be forgiven." (Matthew 6: 9-13)
The biggest loser in the getting even game is the person who will not forgive.
We never know how much we hurt others by choosing not to forgive but it’s never as much as the extent to which we hurt ourselves when we choose not to love.
We lock ourselves into a straitjacket of resentment.
We box ourselves into a haunted house of horrible memories.
Unrelieved resentment is like a video in our mind that plays its constant reruns of all the rotten things that person has done and all the terrible things we’re going to do to them.
But the most important reason to choose to love and forgive is that when we do this we are following the One who says: 44 Love your enemies.
This teacher who also calls us to love our enemies because of the nature and actions of God:
45 for God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
We all benefit equally from God, so our grace must shine and rain on people equally.
But wherever do we find what Martin Luther King Jnr called ‘the strength to love’?
How do we live into this final calling when Jesus says:
48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Or be the people God has created and called us to be.
Jesus gives us a hint in his words: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
In other words, we need help from outside of ourselves.
Let me illustrate as I finish:
After the Nazi brutalities of the Second World War, the Dutch Christian, Corrie Ten Boom felt God was calling her to spread throughout Europe the message of love and forgiveness.
She felt she had dealt with her hatred towards the troops, the soldiers who had abused her and her loved ones in the concentration camps.
But one Sunday, after speaking in a church in Munich, she found herself at the door looking into the face of an old SS guard. He was a man who had years earlier sneered at Corrie and the frightened women prisoners while they were taking their showers in the concentration camp.
Suddenly, it all came back to Corrie. She remembered the mockery of this man and the pain and the shame he’d inflicted.
Now with the war over here was this man coming to Corrie with a big smile.
He said, “How grateful I am for your sermon Fraulein, to think, as you say, that Jesus has washed all my sins away.”
He put out his hand to shake her hand. But it was too much for her! She kept her hand frozen at her side. The anger and the hatred just boiled through her system. There was no love. There was no acceptance.
Corrie said, at the door of the church, she breathed this silent prayer:
“Jesus, I cannot love this man. Give me your love!”
“Jesus, I cannot forgive this man! Please forgive me and give me your forgiveness.”
Corrie said she was touched then and there by the only One who can forgive everyone, everything! She herself felt forgiven. She herself experienced God’s love. And in the freedom of being forgiven she lifted her arm and took the hand of the man who had done such unforgivable things.
This I believe is the heart of the Gospel.
It begins by hearing Christ’s call to love, even our enemies.
It continues with the realization that in our own strength we cannot love.
Yet, when we call upon God’s help and when we experience Christ’s forgiveness flushing out our sins, it is only then that we are freed to forgive and to love others.
May this be our experience, today and every day.
Loving God, before we answer your son’s call and join you in your work of peace making,
We need to experience the freedom of your forgiveness and healing from our hurts.
Help us to join you in your work, where we live out our days, in our suburb and country.
With hands, and hugs, with creativity and generosity, with presence and peace.
Lead, inspire and strengthen us,
Through Jesus who came singing forgiveness and love.
 Walter Wink says: “Nakedness was taboo in Judaism, and shame fell less on the naked party than on the person viewing or causing the nakedness.” (Gen 9:20-27)
 Eugene Peterson’s translation of v48 is quite telling: “In a word, what I'm saying is, Grow up. You're kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”