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Closer to final versions of my Sunday sermons

Forgiveness and Justice 2/20/11

Matthew 5:38-48 (The Message)

  38-42“Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.

 43-47“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.

 48“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

    That last verse in Matthew (5:48) is translated in the NRSV as “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.”  We, in the church, tend to take this as a moral command to be perfect in all that we do and say.  In fact, that is not really the sense and meaning of that word in the original language.  “The sense of the word is more about becoming what was intended, accomplishing one’s God-given purpose in the same way that God constantly reflects God’s own nature and purpose.”[1]  It has the sense of being complete, and whole … not necessarily without flaws.  Being perfect has little or nothing to do with never making mistakes.  Instead, ‘being perfect’ begins in finding our identity in Christ, as Eugene Peterson translates it: Live out your God-created identity (5:48).  Only those who have experienced love can in turn share it with others.  It is when we experience God’s love that we are able to share that love with others.

OK, so we are Christ’s beloved and blessed children.  That is where we will start, how then shall we live?  What does that mean?  Jesus is disturbingly direct, and we’re not exactly sure we want to believe him.  Maybe he means that we should be the bigger person ‘metaphorically.’  He doesn’t really want us to turn the other cheek and get hit again, does he?

That’s the tough question, isn’t it?  Christians have gone one of two ways on this dilemma: some have used it to mean that we should be doormats, always giving more, depleting ourselves in our generosity.  These Christians have tended to become Christian martyrs in their personal lives.  The other Christian answer has been that Jesus is showing us a nonviolent way of protesting and showing injustice.  So that, in turning the cheek, we expose the violence and tell the person that if they hit us again they claim us as an equal. 

Has any of you heard in a sermon of bible-study why turning the cheek could be a form of non-violent protest?  Or giving them your shirt as well?  Or walking the extra mile?  (OK, so in person I gave some historical background on the examples Jesus uses in this passage.  Message me if you’re interested and we’ll e-discuss.)

One commentator was captured by the image of gift-wrapping your best coat if sued for your shirt.  Would your lawyer offer to deliver it for you?  What would you write on the gift tag?  Most of us would feel the urge to give some parting shot on that note.  Sometimes when we ‘take the higher road’ morally, we feel superior to other person, like we’re winning by not playing their game.  Both of these responses (the martyr and the social justice response) have glimmers of truth in them, but they miss the bigger point.

Jesus is suggesting that in our refusal to respond or retaliate to being wronged, we do not in fact ‘win’.  Instead, we effectively call into question the original game and change the rules of engagement.  It’s not about dominating someone else or coming out on top.  By our non-participation, we say that relationships are not about winning or losing, and all of life is about relationships.  And as we remember from our talk last week, relationships are hard work!  “This Jesus not only commands, he also understands, understand just how hard it is to love rather than hate, to forgive rather than begrudge, to embrace rather than protect, to share rather than hoard, to heal rather than to wound, especially when we ourselves walk so much of our lives wounded and hurt.”[2]

Jesus knows and understands the truth of human nature.  How many of you have been wronged in some way?  I would imagine that it doesn’t matter if it was yesterday or years ago, you can probably remember exactly how it made you feel, and you could recount details of how it hurt and how it didn’t get better.  The truth is love does not come naturally to us.  It is not natural to just stand there when being hurt or put upon.  What is natural is to want to protect ourselves either by retreating or by striking back.  It is so natural that we have an entire civil court system devoted to resolving disagreements between individuals when they cannot do so themselves.  (Judge Judy, anyone?)  It is easy to rest in the hurt.  “Some of us are so stubborn that we would rather be right than be in relationship with others.”[3]

This is what Jesus wants his disciples (including us!) to change in the world.  Relationship is more important that being right or hurting someone that hurt us.  The phrase we all utter at some point as children, “But it’s not fair!!” is deeply ingrained into us as humans.  We want the world to be a place of fairness.  We want justice.  The thing is, the road to justice is not a straight line.  Ask the parents of a murder victim if they feel better after their child’s murderer is convicted and penalized.  Or ask the people of South Africa about the strange road of truth-telling and forgiving they took together in order to rebuild their country after the apartheid.  There’s nothing logical or common-sensical about forgiveness and justice.

I thought I had lost my best friend once.  Shortly before I got married, our friendship just sort of fell apart.  She felt wronged, I felt wronged; we could barely speak to each other on the phone without feeling this strong tension that wouldn’t resolve itself.  Years later, we are once again best friends.  Here’s the difficult thing:  I’m not really sure how the relationship mended.  I’ve never fully understood what happened; she’s never been able to fully explain.  There weren’t explicit apologies offered and accepted, but we both decided at some point that our friendship, our relationship was more important than the difficult time we had both gone through separately.  I decided to forgive her and love her for who she was and for who she is now.  And she did the same for me.  I can’t really talk about it without feeling tremendously grateful for the gift of grace and forgiveness that healed our relationship.

Old grudges and deep wounds take a long time to heal.  Past hurts and disappointments haunt us and painful memories are slow to fade.  What is it that allows us to step out of those hurts and find forgiveness for ourselves and offer it to others?  Or perhaps a better question is what stops us from experiencing and extending forgiveness?  There’s a slip of paper in your bulletin for you to think about and fill out.  Write down just one thing that you believe is holding you back from living into your God-given identity.  What gets in your way of being the you God calls you to be?  Write down that one thing, maybe it’s a fear, a memory, a resentment, or a hurt – what one thing keeps you from embracing and becoming who God wishes you to be? (Online readers: take a moment to reflect on this, write it down so its concrete, offer it to God in prayer – for help, see the end of the sermon.)  Take a moment and reflect on this.  Write it down and put it in the offering plate.  Give it over to God.  No one will open or read what you write.  It’s just between you and God.

When it comes down to it, we don’t forgive because it’s easy or because we love the other person.  We forgive because it’s what we are supposed to do.  We forgive because Jesus tells us to, because Jesus models God’s love for us.  Frankly, we forgive because it is in our best interest to do so, because in forgiving others, we are forgiven (Luke 6:37).  In forgiving others, we escape the cycle of anger and frustration of self-righteousness.  Jesus’ love and forgiveness sets us free to forgive even ourselves and recognize that we are important and loved by God.

“Do not fight fire with fire, Jesus says; rather, fight fire with water.”  Forgiveness changes the way of operating in the world; it goes against the models of competition, battle, and economics.  Forgiveness honors life and paves the way forward.  “South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu tells stories of profound forgiveness that came from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the wake of apartheid. There, people who had lost loved ones or had themselves been physically attacked and left wounded forever found it in their hearts to forgive their perpetrators … Tutu says, quite simply, ‘Without forgiveness there is no future.’”[4]

Forgiveness is not about fairness or justice; it’s not about being right or winning.  Forgiveness is about finding wholeness in healing and becoming the best possible you that God has created you to be.  The scriptures come alive in The Message translation of this passage: 

I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves.

My favorite poet, Mary Oliver, has a line in her poem ‘Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches[5]’ that always reaches into my depths and asks me what is real.  She says, “Listen, are your breathing just a little, and calling it a life?”  Jesus calls us to a life that is rich and vibrant, a Technicolor world that takes effort and focus.  It is a world filled with joy and love and forgiveness and blessing.  “You are kingdom people, blessed and beloved by God and called to be salt and light in the world.  Go be who you are!”

Let us pray, believing I am God’s beloved child, I know I am called to share God’s love with others.  But I find it hard because I’m stubborn and proud.  Forgiving sometimes feels like giving in and losing.  When really, God, we are freed in forgiving and in forgiving, we find the grace and mercy that allow us to be the person that you created and called to your purposes.  Let me live in such a way that I may always know this grace and mercy and bear it out into the world.  Amen.


[1] David Lose, “Perfect” at http://www.WorkingPreacher.org

[2] David Lose, “Perfect” at http://www.WorkingPreacher.org

[3] Barbara Essex, Feasting on the Word, Matthew 5:38-48.

[4] Rev. Candace Chellew-Hodge, Huffington Post, “Is it Crazy to Forgive Those Who Hurt You?  A Christian Perspective,  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-candace-chellewhodge/is-it-crazy-to-forgive-th_b_822437.html

[5] Mary Oliver, Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches, http://www.poetry-chaikhana.com/O/OliverMary/HaveYouEverT.htm

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