A sermon prepared for the Seventh Sunday after The Epiphany
Even before hearing it again for the umpteenth time today, I would be willing to bet that if I had prompted you with the beginning of this passage, you would’ve known the rest of it, if not verbatim, at least the overall gist. We know this passage. We know this passage so much that it has become a bit of a tired trope. Turn the cheek is as normal a part of our Christian understanding as love your neighbor, and as such, is largely as ignored in our day to day life because it is so ingrained that we forget to practice it.
And, what does that say about us? What does it say of us that we need to be constantly reminded of this very basic edict? What does it say of us that we so fully understand what is being asked of us, that we have internalized this lesson so completely, that we, in practice, seem to largely forget what it demands of us? It’s not that we’re bad Christians or even bad people. It’s not that we are actively ignoring the teachings of Christ. But rather, we know this lesson so deeply, understand it so completely, and have truly experienced it in practice by ourselves or others so rarely, that it becomes another one of those qualifying traits that we say we want to emulate, but find ourselves not really doing in practice. We may even turn the other cheek with regular practice but rarely do we give the cloak too, rarely do we go that second mile.
This isn’t good enough. A lot of what is laid before us by Christ, the “blessed are,” the distilling of the commandments to two succinct and perfectly understandable standards, are things that we must strive to try and reach. It is a level to which we must try to live up to. It is a level to which we will often fail to live up to, and yet, we will still constantly try. And, through Christ, through the grace of God, we can continue to try and reach this level. But, today’s gospel parameters of life are not unattainable. They are not the level of faith and practice to which we must strive to try and attain. Today’s gospel parameters are achievable, and there are no qualifiers, no loopholes, no trying is the goal, for the goal is to do, the goal is to be perfect.
Perfection is often an unattainable reality. Perfection, and its pursuit, can even be the ultimate distraction from us experiencing the full love of Christ that is life in community. Perfection in today’s gospel is different. Perfection in today’s gospel is acknowledging our shared human experience. Perfection in today’s gospel is easy, if we want it. It’s easy, because we already know how to do it, we practice it on a regular basis. Everyone loves their own. Everyone loves and fights for and sticks up for those who are one of them. Everyone has this shared experience of loving and being loved by those whom we are closest to, and we often get to share this experience in a broader context with those whom we find affinity, a shared cause, a wider shared experience. But, who has experience in loving the other? Who has experience in loving the enemy?
We find it so difficult to love the enemy because we don’t have that experience from which to understand what that is supposed to look like. How am I supposed to love my enemy when they are everything that is antithetical to who I am? How am I supposed to love my enemy when they are the embodiment of everything that is wrong with this world? How am I supposed to love my enemy when they are so wrong, so dumb, so mean, so petty, so hurtful? How am I?
Simple: love them the same way you love your own.
You see, we do have the language, the experience, the knowledge of how to love the enemy. We practice it every single day with our own. We are really good at loving, and we simply need to apply that same approach to those whom we label as the enemy.
Now, this is not necessarily a radical approach, nor should it be a reality-shaking revelation, because we should already know this. God makes the sun shine on the evil and the good, rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteous, because we are all part of this creation. We are all a part of the shared humanity that we experience in this creation. We all are equal in the eyes of our creator. And, who are we to say who is the enemy and who is the righteous? Who are we say that I am one and you are the other?
We do not have that right. We do not have the right to label the enemy and despise them, to discredit them, to tear them apart. We do not have the right, as Christians, to encourage division to exist in this world. We do not have the right, as Christians, to sow discord in our communities, in our country, in our world. We do have the responsibility, or perhaps more deeply the commandment, to love. And, this is a commandment to love that does not stop with ourselves, with our friends, family, compatriots, activist groups, political party. This is a commandment to love that knows no label, that recognizes no difference between the sun that shines on my face or yours, that recognizes no difference in the rain that falls on us all.
In our country, even here with our locally elected representatives, there is a call to both resist and persist. In this call to resist and persist is the temptation to vilify the other and treat them as less than. The moniker of “precious snowflakes” has been used to describe liberal and conservatives alike (not to mention millennials, who appear to be the source of everything bad in the world currently). The discrediting of real concern, of reducing real people to labels of racist rust-belter, liberal baby-killing idiot, gun toting nut job, does not serve to bring us together but rather actively works to drive us further apart. But, as Christians, our call to resist and persist, a very real call as followers of Christ when we see injustice in this world, our call must be founded in and viewed through our experience of love. It must be informed by our knowledge of how to love, and how that can be applied to someone who would rather strike our cheek then listen to our voices. Our experience of love, and our extension of that same love to the enemy, is the only way we can bridge the ever-widening gap between real people that has been cultivated and capitalized on to create a political and social climate that demands we take sides and fight against everything and everyone from the other, regardless of how committed we actually are to the cause.
If we resist and persist through love, then we will change our approach from one of attack to one of real honest concern. If we resist and persist through love, we invite those on the “other side” to engage in conversation with us, to truly hear what we are both saying, rather than the talking around/through/over that currently dominates our social and political discourse. When we resist and persist through love, we strive to find that deeper connection that exists between all of us as the creation of God. When we resist and persist through love, we understand why we must turn the other cheek when struck, we understand why we must also give the cloak when someone wants to take our coat, we understand why we must go that second mile when forced to walk the first, we embody the truth of the love that exists when we give to everyone who begs, and not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from us.
There is a very real reason why we hear the same stories, the same lessons, over and over again (outside of the fact that we’re on a three year lectionary cycle and there’s only so much of the gospels). We must be reminded of them because of how often we tend to internalize and compartmentalize the real task that is being laid out before us. We know so much of the Bible, so deeply, that we begin to lose that connection to the radical nature of what is being laid out, both 2000 years ago and here in our modern context. When we hear this lesson today, we must remind ourselves that the perfection that Jesus is calling us to today is the barometer of success for these very basic guidelines. And, we must know that we can be successful in achieving this perfection, if we remember that not only are we called to realize these edicts in a perfect manner, but that we have the knowledge and understanding of how to do so, if we simply tap into the reality of our shared experience as equal parts of this creation.