Sermon Seeds: Expanding Boundaries/Love Disarms

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany Year A

Lectionary citations:
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Psalm 119:33-40
I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Matthew 5:38-48

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture
Matthew 5:38-48

Weekly Theme
Expanding Boundaries/Love Disarms

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by Mark Suriano

We have been sitting up on this mountain with Jesus for a number of Sundays now, listening to the teachings of this rabbi Jesus, and now this season of Epiphany is coming to a close. What started at Jesus’ baptism by John out there in the wilderness is now solidly situated on the side of a hill, where the New Moses is interpreting the Law for a new group of exiles.

Jason Byassee comments that Jesus here is “at his ornery best offering ‘advice’ that makes no sense divorced from the nature of the one that is giving it” (Feasting on the Word Year A, Vol. 1). As with much of the content of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is waking up a generation of people for whom the Law – now so associated with the powerful who are guardians of its precise following – only presents itself as a burden and obligation. The leaders of Israel, at least the ones we bump into in the Gospels, have become disconnected from God and the people, but Jesus speaks of these obligations from a personal place, offering for all who hear a reinterpretation that brings life rather than death.    

In doing so, Jesus is not criticizing the contemporary interpretation as wrong, but as incomplete. It does not go far enough and cannot bring people into a transformational relationship with the God of Sinai. As Greg Carey reminds us, “These sayings emphasize doing what Jesus says…the thesis insists upon righteous conduct, including Torah observance, that exceeds even that of the Scribes and the Pharisees” (Feasting on the Word Year A, Vol. 1). All along in this sermon, the Scribes and Pharisees have been within earshot of Jesus. They have been listening in to the teachings he presents, and we can only imagine that what he says is geared towards them as much as anyone else. Jesus is not openly critical of the prescriptions of the Law or its application (it is in Matthew’s Gospel after all that Jesus claims to have come to fulfill the Law), but he is calling for a deeper and more radical way of following.

The familiar “you have heard it said /but I say to you” device begs the listeners to pay attention as Jesus deepens both the meaning of the Law and the obligation of the hearers. In many ways, “an eye for an eye” and “love your neighbors and hate your enemies” are more appealing to our sensibilities and our need for a swift, concise, sense of justice. Jesus’ admonitions are equally clear but infinitely more difficult to follow, since the obligation lies not in retribution against another but in requiring more from the self and from the redeemed community he is gathering.

Many years ago, the writer Calvin Miller wrote a series of books that were analogies to the Gospels and New Testament writings. These books, The Singer, The Song, and The Finale, reframe the story in such a way that we are drawn into the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders as if it were a battle between beauty and ugliness. At one point, a chapter begins with the simple statement, “The only thing an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is good for is creating an eyeless, toothless world.” In many ways this passage from Matthew’s Gospel reflects that tension. Is it more important to seek retribution or to meet evil with good? Does the ancient Covenant simply render judgment on the dealings of people with each other, or create among us the possibility of true community?

In her book The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Karen Armstrong begins by writing about our “reptilian brain,” the one that is still present underneath the more developed brain. The “reptilian brain” is responsible for the fight/flight response in animals and the need for revenge and retribution. It is a necessary part of life when danger is near and a quick response is necessary, but it is not attuned to living in societies nor, one might say, for the life of faith. In that sense, Jesus is inviting the crowds to consider embracing a life that is in many ways counter to our very basest instincts for survival. He is outpacing our reptilian brain with a call to the highest and best within us, to raise our sights and join him in creating a more compassionate world, and to create among us a true community of respect based on self-giving.

A new community in the midst of an old one

Like Moses leading the Hebrews from the slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land, Jesus is creating the first signs of a new community in the midst of the old one. The old order created communities that were fractured, divided between the righteous (the Law abiding) and the unrighteous (those who failed in the observances of the Law), with the powerful elites being the ones to determine the difference. As Ronald J. Allen reminds us, “The realm of God creates a community of peoples who have been separated and alienated. Love of the enemy prefigures this restored community in the midst of the fractious communities of the old order” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels, emphasis added). As Jesus teaches, the beginnings of a new order are sown, a new order that does not simply make the weak strong and the strong weak, but one that will transform the nature of community by the example he will set as well as by the words he preaches. The strength of this passage lies in the knowledge of how the whole enterprise turns out. Jesus’ inexorable march to Jerusalem would punctuate his teachings with an example so convincing that later generations would know that he was more than a person who spoke well, he was a person who lived what he preached.

If this new order, this new community, is being sown in the midst of the old order, what might that mean for our life as a people of faith in our own day? We can certainly see the effects of the old order around us: poverty is still rampant, people still settle disputes with fists and firearms, nations still conquer nations, people still think with their “reptilian brains” and seem intent on creating a world of fragmentation. Some among the Christian faithful understand faith as something that keeps us until the world ends, but what about those of us who understand faith as a daily walk in the world? Some among us live in communities that are hotbeds of fear and violence: what if our communities were hothouses for the seeds of this new order? We could, in our worship, pray vehemently for the passing of the old order and quietly live our lives the rest of the week, or we could pray vehemently for the passing of the old order and plant the seeds of the new by the living of our lives the rest of the week as Jesus preaches in the Gospel today.

Blooming in hostile places

Several years ago I took a vacation in western North Carolina. As part of the vacation, we took a drive up to the highest point in the mountains, where (of course) the park system had installed a visitors center. Just off the visitors center was a swing bridge over a canyon that led to a rocky outcrop where, much to my horror, people were standing with their toes against the edge of a sheer drop off to the distant valley below. I chose not to walk across the bridge (too high up) and would certainly never stand on the edge of that cliff (my vertigo would have done me in, I am sure) so I stayed on the path. As my family went over, I began to look around the vegetation on this rocky mountaintop and noticed a purple flower blooming there, in a place where there was no soil and where the conditions could be windy and dry. This little beauty came right out of the rock and I was taken by it.

Once my family returned, we went back to the visitor center where I asked about that flower. The ranger told me that the seeds are blown by the wind and deposit themselves in the tiniest of crevasses, and that the plants have adapted to flourishing in a landscape that is at times hostile. Eventually, he said, the plant itself could crack the rock, or the boulder, in which it grew; it would just take time and persistence. How like that flower are the seeds of the new order that Jesus announces today, inviting us to lives of transformational living even in the midst of the old ways of living. As communities of faith, we might just find ourselves taking small but important steps to overturning the ways of alienation and separation, by practicing the kind of faith Jesus talks of in a hostile and unforgiving world. Sooner or later, we may just find that we have begun to shatter the old order, or at least open some well-placed cracks in it, so that the new order Jesus preached could begin.

“Perfect” as “whole” and “complete”

The final sentences of the passage have also caused some confusion. The directive to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” has caused some a good deal of anxiety as they drive toward perfection, as they would imagine God to be perfect. In our hectic, ego-driven world, this directive can become a spiritual legitimation for all sorts of Type A activity, from physical beauty and intellectual acumen, to spiritual heroics of all kinds. However, as Fred Craddock observes, “‘Perfect’ can also be translated ‘complete’ or ‘mature.’ It is not here referring to moral flawlessness but to love that is not partial or immature” (Preaching through the Christian Year A).

To be perfect is to love in the way God loves, to practice the way of compassion and giving as God has demonstrated it to us in Jesus. Because this perfection has to do with love, which is self-giving, it is geared toward the other, and has little to do with our concepts of perfection. In fact, the perfect life might just be seen as the life of love for God, for self, and for others (which of course, are the two gospel commandments) that takes us out of our nervous self-concern into relationships within community. In fact, “the root meaning of the word ‘perfect’ is undivided, whole, complete,” Ronald J. Allen writes, and “it means perfection in the sense of treating people in the same way that God treats people in the divine realm” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). Following the teaching of Jesus, then, leads to wholeness and completeness in all aspects of life and in all people not by focusing on the self but on my living and loving the other.

It is important to mention that we must also face the fact that we find ourselves wrestling with a Christian history that has turned these sayings into a justification for docility and obedience. Many people of color, women, persons of various sexual orientations, and the poor have found themselves at the blunt end of the powers that be that have used Jesus’ words as a way to control and manipulate. For these and others, the words of Jesus can present themselves as a problem, as Barbara Essex reminds us: “Some of us are too suspicious of the outcome and may resist living the values of God’s realm. We are more intent on making sure that no one has the chance to abuse or tyrannize us again” (Feasting on the Word Year A, Vol. 1). There may be those in our communities for whom the exercise of self-giving has been forced and has led to abuse or manipulation by others, as mentioned above or in many daily ways (spousal abuse, for example). These are situations that Jesus is not envisioning here: the exercise of self-giving, and of “going the extra mile,” are meant to be liberating and not enslaving.

With whom do you identify in this story: the crowd, or the religiously observant leaders? How much do you think Christians take seriously Jesus’ command to love our enemies as a core teaching? How do you respond to the notion of a “reptilian brain” determining our responses? When have you experienced transformation because a person or community (or you yourself) went the extra mile of faithfulness? When have you ever witnessed a “flower” crack the “rock” it inhabited? How might that look in our culture?

The Reverend Mark J. Suriano serves as Associate Pastor of Rock Spring Congregational United Church of Christ in Arlington, Virginia.

For further reflection:

Simone Weil, 20th century
“The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say, ‘What are you going through?'”

Chinese proverb
“He who seeks vengeance must dig two graves: one for his enemy and one for himself.”

St. John of the Cross, 16th century
“In the evening, we will be judged on love.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
“Religion is to do right. It is to love, it is to serve, it is to think, it is to be humble.”

Winston Churchill, 20th century
“They say that nobody is perfect. Then they tell you practice makes perfect. I wish they’d make up their minds.”

Lectionary texts

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:

Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.

You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.

You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling-block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.

You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.

You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Psalm 119:33-40

Teach me, O God, the way of your statutes,
   and I will observe it to the end.
Give me understanding, that I may keep your law
   and observe it with my whole heart.

Lead me in the path of your commandments,
   for I delight in it.

Turn my heart to your decrees,
   and not to selfish gain.
Turn my eyes from looking at vanities;
   give me life in your ways.

Confirm to your servant your promise,
   which is for those who fear you.
Turn away the disgrace that I dread,
   for your ordinances are good.

See, I have longed for your precepts;
   in your righteousness give me life.

1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written,

  ‘He catches the wise in their craftiness’,

and again,

   ‘The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise,
   that they are futile.’
So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future — all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.

Matthew 5:38-48

[Jesus said:]

“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 an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

“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, 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. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Liturgical notes on the Readings

In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:

First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel

The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.

The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.

A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.

During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings.