Sermon for Epiphany VII
St Thomas', Salem--Matthew 5:38-48
I don’t know how many of you are on Facebook or Twitter or follow internet news sources, but, if you are, you don’t need me to tell you what a turbulent world was and is represented in those places in the run-up to and since the election last November. The level of passion—some might call it hysteria—from all political directions, the degree of polarization, is like nothing I have seen before in my 65 years, and like nothing I would have ever anticipated.
Now, my own social media footprint is mostly among Christians of various stripes, but there are several non-Christians in my networks. And so I find it interesting, at least, that, when it comes to the tone of rhetorical discourse about secular politics, I don’t see any appreciable difference between my Christian and my non-Christian contacts. Christians are not only not immune to all of this, but their Christian identity seems, most of the time, to not make a discernible difference in the way they conduct themselves, and this I do find greatly disturbing. More than not, I see the church getting coopted by and sucked up into the structures and values of the world rather than thinking with a distinctively Christian mind and speaking with a distinctively Christian voice. We serve as amplifiers for the political noise that is around us instead of offering something noticeably different. Instead of being salt or light or a city on a hill—perhaps you remember those images from the gospel reading Sunday before last—we are largely invisible and irrelevant.
The secular political realm is driven largely by a concern for rights—constitutional rights, statutory rights, God-given rights, or whatever. We’re obsessed with making sure our rights, whether real or imagined, are respected. The political and cultural environment encourages us to define ourselves by categories that should only be used to describe, not define—things like race, sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, or any number of other factors. When we are driven primarily by a concern for rights, especially our own rights, we begin to understand ourselves and represent ourselves according to what distinguishes and divides, rather than what unites and reconciles. We have settled for a very technically precise notion of justice—an “eye for an eye,” as the Levitical code puts it—rather than for the deep justice and righteousness that wells up from the loving heart of God.
And, ironically, what we end up with when we settle for mere technical justice, justice based on one or more of the many identities by which we are invited to define ourselves, is at best a wash, and arguably no net increase in actual injustice. There is little or no amelioration or respite from tyranny or oppression or degradation or dehumanization or marginalization, or anything. In the language of the collect for Christ the King Sunday, which I am finding very useful on many occasions other than on that feast day, humankind is “divided and enslaved by sin.” Isn’t that the distilled essence of our political life in this country—divided and enslaved by sin?
By this point, you’re probably hoping that this is indeed a good news/bad news story, and I’m happy to reassure that it is. So here’s the good news: We have, as Christians, the resources that can enable us to change the conversation, or, at least, to change the way we participate in the conversation. We’re still working our way through the Sermon on the Mount on these Sundays after Epiphany, and today we come to a section of that sermon that the New Testament scholars call the “Great Antitheses”: “You have heard that it was said, X, but I say to you, Y.”
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. … You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
This is where we get the expressions “Turn the other cheek” and “Go the extra mile.” When I looked at this passage to begin preparing to preach here today, I was struck by how deeply both of these phrases are rooted in the way we speak English—people who have never opened a Bible in their lives would be familiar with them, even if they couldn’t tell you where they came from. Turn the other cheek; go the extra mile. We might paraphrase this material into something like, “If people insult you, give them your mother’s name so they can insult her too. If someone steals your credit card number, give them the three-digit security code as well. If someone sues you for $100,000, offer to settle for $200,000.”
Does this sound very compatible with a culture whose motto is “I have rights, therefore I am?” No, not at all. It sounds like something that threatens to undermine and subvert such a culture, something that might very well turn it on its head. The world defines justice as the extension of rights. But Jesus stands among us today as says, “But I say to you …” Jesus invites us beyond rights and beyond technical justice and beyond mere righteousness to something higher and deeper and more transcendent, to a place where the walls of division and the chains of slavery to sin can be shattered. When we push through the demands of mere justice and righteousness and into the territory that Jesus invites us to occupy, we tap into the saving power of God to break the bonds that enslave us to division and sin.
By way of illustration, let me give just one example of a conspicuous failure to lean into this teaching of Our Lord. Most of you are aware of the tremendous conflict that has engulfed the Episcopal Church over about the last fifteen years. People who had worshiped together in the same pews and at the same altars 20 years ago found themselves on the opposite sides of nasty and protracted lawsuits in the secular courts. It was a terrible witness to the world. Tens of millions of dollars have been squandered in legal battles over real estate. Neither those who have remained in the Episcopal Church nor those who have moved on can claim to have clean hands; some of both have been both plaintiffs and defendants. It will be at least a century, I would imagine, before our descendants can look dispassionately on this time in the church’s life and begin to piece things back together. Tremendous damage has been done. At least two or three times during that cycle of litigation, this passage from Matthew has come up in the Sunday lectionary, but we can be forgiven for wondering whether anybody was paying attention. “But I say to you, if someone occupies your church, offer them the parish hall as well. If someone sues you for your checking account, include your savings account in the settlement. Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” What if … what if?
I’m enough of a believer in divine grace to hope that such a dark blot on our past does not have to rule our future. I have enough faith in God’s redemptive purposes to hope that the church throughout the world may yet lay hold of the truth that the only identity that matters is the identity we receive in baptism, where we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. When we operate in that identity, we make ourselves available to effectively announce to the world the coming of the Kingdom of God. We don’t even have to do anything, actually, if we’re truly operating in our baptismal identity, we just have to be, and the Holy Spirit will close the deal. In our common life in Christ, we can be a channel of hope that there is a better way for men and women and children to get along with one another in community. We become witnesses that there is someone who can bridge gaps that appear unbridgeable—because there is power in weakness, there is gain in loss, there is victory in surrender, and there is life in death.
Jesus constantly invites us to a quality of life that is more wonderful than we even know how to ask for, more splendid than we can even imagine. That collect for Christ the King that describes the human condition as “divided and enslaved by sin” goes on to voice the petition that we might be “freed and brought together” under the “most gracious rule” of Christ our King. This is precisely what today’s liturgy calls us to. May we be desperate enough to accept the invitation. Amen.