“Be Kind to One Another”
Psalm 119, Lev 19: 1-2, 11-19 and Matthew 5: 38-48
Since mid-January when we heard two of the stories of Jesus’ baptism, we’ve been worshiping in Ordinary Time. As you know, Ordinary is not “ordinary” at all. This relatively few number of weeks
between Jesus’ baptism and the start of Lent, like Jesus’ short ministry on earth, is a time for us to study the ways and words of Christ and begin again to discern for ourselves who Christ is calling us to be in this world so desperately in need of his justice and love, and his eschatological promise we call eternal life. If you ever wonder whether we’re in Ordinary Time, in contrast to Advent or Lent or Pentecost,
take a signal from the paraments on the chancel. When we’re in Ordinary time, the pulpit, lectern, communion table, and clergy and choir stoles will be green (unless we are celebrating one of our sacraments). In the Presbyterian Church, when we have a baptism or communion,
we use the liturgical color of white.
This liturgical year, our Gospel readings in our three-year cycle of scripture selections are most often taken from the Gospel of Matthew. Since January, the readings have taken us from Jesus’ call of his disciples through a good chunk of the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is a series of lessons Jesus taught his disciples when they were up on a hill, away from the crowds. As we end this period of Ordinary Time and learning life’s lessons from Jesus, and get closer to the season of Lent, it’s fitting that we’re reminded of the story from the Sermon on the Mount that emphasizes God’s expansive love that you and I are instructed to carry into our everyday lives as followers of Jesus Christ.
As we are all undoubtedly aware, love is sometimes more easily taught than followed. In our world filled with violence, oppression, injustices of every kind against individuals, institutions – even whole nations of people including categories of people within them, it’s a season-long sermon series to address each of the situations we encounter with love. In our gospel lesson this morning, Jesus gives us very practical applications for how we are to love: turning the other cheek, loving those we consider to be our enemies, and even praying for those who persecute us. But sometimes it’s awfully hard to love – especially those times when we are being forced to suffer a terrible wrong.
This congregation has real history with this. I’m thinking mostly about Western’s experience defending our First Amendment right to move the congregation here to this location in Foggy Bottom, intact, with Miriam’s Kitchen. The protests and demonstrations – the persistence and conviction of this congregation led by John Wimberly – were a powerful witness to Christ’s call to love our neighbors – our neighbors who live outside and our neighbors who live in luxury apartment buildings around our corner of 24th and G. Western’s love of our neighbors is what many of us here today acknowledge is the primary reason you joined Western Presbyterian Church. Western’s defense of the First Amendment was one of the ways Western’s love went public.
Yes, we are all too familiar with the First Amendment from our work as a church and defending our right to continue our ministry with Miriam’s here. If I were to make this a political pop quiz, I’d guess that with Western’s intent to prevent senseless gun violence, we’d be fairly quick to answer that the Second Amendment gives US citizens the right to bear arms. But how many of us– without Googling on your smart phones – can shout out the Third Amendment? If you’re stumbling, think a bit about today’s scripture lesson. The Third Amendment is “No soldier shall in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.” In the history of military occupation, armies have almost always had the right to coerce the civilian population to help. It was such a pervasive and challenging thread through world history that it became the basis for the 3rd Amendment to our Constitution.
In the United States, then, and at least since 1791, our military has had no right to force itself upon a civilian’s household. So you might wonder what in the world this has to do with the Sermon on the Mount. Going back to the Roman occupation in Jesus’ day, not only could Roman soldiers seize control of property and sleep where they would, they were permitted to impress civilians to carry their equipment for one Roman mile. This was the equivalent of one thousand paces. Israelites, then, were often forced to carry packs weighing even 100 pounds for nearly a mile – carry the weight of their oppressors, whom they hated and often willed dead. So when Jesus told his disciples that if someone forces them to go one mile, they are to go the extra mile, too, it was the ultimate turn the other cheek – the ultimate expression of immediate forgiveness in the face of injustice; the ultimate expression of love.
Jesus didn’t deny that we’ll have enemies. And being angry with someone who’s done you wrong is human. But Jesus tells us that we aren’t to stay angry for long. We’re to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Of course, scripture is not advocating that one remain in harm’s way of someone who intends physical or emotional danger. Scripture is telling us to go the extra mile in love and be perfect as God is perfect; knowing that perfect love casts out fear; realizing that fear is the basis for so much that compels us to do angry things — just as fear compels us to hold on to anger toward those we consider to be enemies of the state or of the heart.
What’s more, just as Jesus told his disciples to carry the Roman soldiers’ bags an extra mile in love, we are not merely to pray through gritted teeth. Our prayers, – a manifestation of our love, – in order to be genuine must go the extra mile, too, …and in this way begin to effect a great change of heart – if only our own.
When was the last time you truly prayed for someone you believe to’ve done you wrong? I don’t mean to prompt your recollections of those times you may’ve prayed that someone might see life your way. I am wondering with you, when was it that you prayed for your enemy’s well being, or their happiness, or their family’s wellbeing or happiness? Do you actually love the people who are responsible for a situation you’re in, – a situation you’re protesting, – a situation you’re hoping to change for others?
Prayers (in the way that Jesus intends for us to offer for our enemies and persecutors) are not to encourage that our enemies change their position to our way of thinking. Rather, our prayers in the way that Jesus intends this time are to be focused on others and in our focus on another strengthen our relationships with them that we become in right relationship with all people – even our enemies and those who persecute us- but most notably, God.
A right and perfect relationship with God and others is one that fulfills the law of love and forgiveness such that when we forgive one another in love, we are working to maintain the bonds of humanity between us. This can be challenging and difficult, as we often have to leave behind our self-interests and pride. But it also can be freeing and life-giving.
As I was studying the Holiness Code from the Leviticus text and this section from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, so many world situations came to mind that are desperately in need of a taste of this lesson on love and forgiveness. I thought about the crises in Palestine and Israel and the new book, My Promised Land, which I commend to you all. I thought about the years-long tension between the Turks and the Armenians and the DVD “Uprooted” produced by Presbyterian Elder Lucy Janjigian. I thought about the US history of conquest on Native American lands and our bitter history of slavery of Africans. I thought about the racial tensions that mounted over the Trayvon Martin case and now the case involving Michael Dunn and three black teens – one 17 year old now dead. I thought about all of the times that we experience hate crimes in our country. I considered whether we might unpack who Jesus meant by neighbor. Or, was Jesus preaching about political enemies or enemies of the heart? There are many opportunities in this text, too, to ponder our communion with those who have no cloak. As I studied and prayed in reflection of our church, I concluded that it’s a sad state when our reflections and prayers are so focused on remote places and experiences long gone – even academic exercises, that we effectively neglect to tend a simple plank in our own eyes. And so I end our sermon this morning with a quiet note for us.
We have an opportunity to be more kind to one another. We have an opportunity to say thank you and please more often, to ask how we can help each other when it seems like there is no one in the world
who can truly help some causes. We have an opportunity to extend the grace that has been given to us by our Lord, Jesus Christ, to others in our community. We have an opportunity to speak directly with one another, in faith toward understanding. We have an opportunity to pray for one another. Truly pray. We have an opportunity to be kind to one another, for it is simply impossible to take care of all of the injustices in the world when we avoid the injustices between and amongst the very ones of us.
We have a unique moment in the history of Western Presbyterian Church to bond over the good that God is bringing forth and actively wait in faith for the next new thing. Let us move forward with gratitude and grace – and an increase of hope. Let us move forward with love. Let us move forward with kindness, for the sake of all of the suffering souls in the world and right next door and in the pew beside us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.