a sermon, based on Matthew 5.38-48, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany, February 19, 2017
Crowds “from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan,” hearing about Jesus and his healing power and wanting more, followed him, gathering around him. So vast a multitude, Jesus, in order to be seen and heard, ascended a hill, and began to teach.
Over the last three Sundays, we have read portions of Jesus’ great Sermon on the Mount. We have heard his surprising pronouncements of blessing on the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, the persecuted – the marginalized folk on the fringes of society. We have heard his stirring encouragements to those blessed folk to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world; through their lives and labors seasoning, preserving the earth and dispelling the world’s darkness. We have heard his stunning declarations, truly, his radical reiterations of God’s commandments, “You have heard that it was said to those in ancient times…but I say to you…”
Today, Jesus continues his examination, his illumination of God’s commandments, truly his description of the nature of life in God’s kingdom. He speaks of lex talionis, the law of retaliation, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” At inception, this law was intended to be an act of justice as fairness, justice meted out measure-for-measure to assure that the punishment for an offense was neither arbitrary nor more severe than the crime. Nevertheless, Jesus gives his followers an alternative to doing unto others as they have had done unto them (which, in this case, when followed to its logical conclusion would render everyone blind and toothless!). His followers are to face and overcome evil with good.
Sometimes I wonder why anyone, once listening to Jesus, his miraculous healing power aside, would continue to follow him. For most of the people who gathered around Jesus were society’s least, last, and left out. They possessed little to nothing of material or political capital. Therefore, daily entangled in poverty’s snare, they were most susceptible to the disruptive change of life’s fickle chance and circumstance and most defenseless against the cruelties of an oppressive Roman Empire. Therefore, Jesus’ counsel not to fight as evil fights, but rather to turn the other cheek, to love the enemy, to pray for the persecutor, so to be perfect as God is perfect, indeed, to perfect, to fulfill the intent of God’s law, truly God’s very nature, I imagine must have sounded crazy!
Still does! For the world hasn’t changed. Power still takes shape in vast armies and stockpiles of deadly weaponry, mounds of money and expansive empire, relationships with those in control, connections with those in the know, and the threat of violence and the use of force.
And that’s the point. The world into which Jesus came was the same as it is today and ever shall be. And this world, our world is the same as that world, his world that responded to him and his message that truest power is the sacrifice of love by killing him.
And that’s the paradox. Jesus, in his life and ministry, confronted the world with his kingdom-challenge, his kingdom-bet that God, God’s life, God’s nature, God’s kingdom of unconditional, universal love was, is the greatest power of all time and the greatest power before time and the greatest power beyond time. And the world (and this point, I believe, is at the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ, even more, I daresay, at the foundation of all divine revelation), thinking itself wise, demonstrated its foolishness, taking Jesus up on his challenge, his bet by murdering him, thus proving itself wrong and him right. For the world in murdering Jesus convicted itself for always doing what it first and last, ever and always does: Kill…
But nothing kills love. Love always lives. Lives in Jesus. Lives in his message. Lives in all, in us who believe and follow him. Lives whenever our anger leads to reconciliation, not retribution. Lives whenever we retaliate against an enemy with love, not hatred, with the compassion of understanding and not the violence of indifference, even and especially when we do not and cannot agree.
And when, not if we struggle to believe and follow Jesus, verily, when we think Jesus is crazy or…and that we’re crazy to believe and follow him, then let us pray in the words of our Collect: “O Lord…Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love…” For it is only the abiding presence and the abundant power of the Holy Spirit that makes the love of Jesus, as he declares in his teaching and as he demonstrates in his life, live in us!
Photograph: me preaching at Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, January 2017, by Pontheolla Mack Abernathy
Illustration: The Sermon of the Beatitudes (La sermon des béatitudes) (1886), James Tissot (1836-1902)
 Matthew 4.25
 Matthew, chapters 5-7
 Matthew 5.1-12, The Beatitudes
 Matthew 5.13-20
 Matthew 5.21-37, my emphasis
 See Exodus 21.24, Leviticus 24.19-20, and Deuteronomy 19.21
 I borrow this thought from Martin Luther King, Jr., who, making a case for the utter uselessness of violence as a vehicle to achieve equity and for the persuasive, non-corrosive power of love, wrote, “Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers” (Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, 1958); my emphasis.
 The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible reads, “Do not resist an evildoer” (Matthew 5.39), which can be interpreted to mean that one is to offer no defense against an opponent or an offender. However, the Greek infinitive (antistenai) translated “to resist” or “to oppose”, infers that resistance or opposition to an evildoer is to be done without violence. In other words, a follower of Jesus is called to contend against evil, but not with the force that evil has employed, but rather with the power of love.
 The Collect for the 7th Sunday after Epiphany (full text): O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing; Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.