Dangerous Words: A Sermon on Matthew 5:38-48

The sermon from Sunday, February 19, 2017 on Matthew 5:38-48

When we read Scripture, we read it through the lens of our lives. We can’t help it. We take Scripture and we make sense of it in our lives. Who we are – as an audience for Scripture – matters.

When we preach from the texts of the Bible  – I or anyone else – we’re preaching to people who are in a particular place. There aren’t any universals. It matters how you preach what to whom. A lot of times preachers don’t necessarily take that into account. They preach like everybody needs to hear the same message.

This gets complicated because we here within this room are so very different one from another. On the varied spectrums of human diversity, our group gathered here is quite diverse indeed. It’s part of what makes preaching here each week an interesting and wonderful challenge.

But today – this is the rare day, the really rare day – when it would be easier to preach to some big affluent white suburban church than to be preaching here to the home crowd.

Not actually that many of them would want to hear what I would have to say to them based on this Scripture. There’s at least one local big affluent white suburban church that’s going after their pastor right now because that pastor dared to mention the needs of immigrants and refugees in a sermon.

It’s not that I would last long in such a place. But here’s the thing  – I would have no problem preaching this text from Matthew to a bunch of affluent white suburban big church folk. People of privilege need the witness that calls them to live more faithfully, especially toward those who have less cultural power than they do.

Well, I didn’t get that invitation.

Instead I get to preach this passage here among people who for all of our various reasons are often the subject of society’s oppression – because depending on who you are out there, you don’t fit with some part of the dominant social norm. Maybe you’re black or poor or a woman or gay or disabled or homeless or transgender or – how about this – maybe you are more than one of those things all at once.

To all of you, to myself, to any person whom society exiles to the margins of acceptability –  this is a dangerous passage.

I consider it one of the most dangerous passages in the Bible.

I want to make something really clear.

Jesus ain’t telling you to make yourself into a doormat for the powerful people of this world.

You are not being asked to accommodate your abuser.

Jesus does not want you to let people walk all over you.

You hear me? That is not an acceptable reading of this passage. Jesus does not want you to let people walk all over you.

So what does this mean?

What does this passage have to say to people like us?

The thing is – this isn’t really so much about the enemy or the persecutors or the beggars. This is the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is telling us how to live. It’s about us. Jesus is speaking to us about what we do.

I propose we translate it into some really concrete terms.

The first thing we take from this passage – no matter who you are – is that if you are trying to follow Jesus, you don’t have permission to be a jerk. Even when you’re dealing with difficult and harmful people. You don’t have to let them hurt you, but if we claim to follow Jesus, we are called to let God work through us all the time.

That means that we see the full humanity of others even when they do not see it in us.

We do not let them turn us into people who act like they do.

We do not let hateful people make us hateful.

We do not let poisonous people turn us toxic.

This is not easy.  Not easy at all. At least not for me and I bet perhaps not for some of y’all.

The temptation to give in to the world’s cynicism, brutality, and hard-heartedness is strong. If you aren’t hiding your head in the sand, you have reason to be angry and frightened. If you are awake, you’re probably outraged.

But if you want to follow Jesus, if you want to save your own soul, you must cultivate the heart of God in your own heart.

Do not let people walk all over you, but neither will you walk all over anyone else.

As Christians, we play the game by different rules. Actually, we’re playing a whole different game.

We may live in a savage world, but we will not be savage in our relationships one to another and to the body of the earth.  

Because if we ask the question ‘what does it mean to love your enemy?’ the heart of the question is ‘what does it mean to love?’

To love after the example of Jesus is active, tenacious, daily love. Sometimes it means loving people even when you don’t like them.

And sometimes – let’s be real – there are people who have hurt you so badly – we’re talking serious abuse of body and soul and mind and heart – there are people that try as you might you may not be able to love them.

It happens in this world. There is value, however,  in continually nurturing in your heart a Spirit of love and compassion and forgiveness. There is healing in that practice.

Even if someone has hurt you so bad that you genuinely cannot love them, continue to opt for love over hate, for forgiveness and compassion. Practice love throughout your life. In that way you orient yourself to love rather than to animosity.

Let love be your guide in your life. That gives honor to God.

And the rest of us will keep at the work of loving the unloveable. This is a group effort. Among us all, there is the possibility of great love and great compassion, even when any one of us is having a hard time. We do this work together, in community, not in isolation.

There’s a real key here in that last line in this passage – Be perfect like God is perfect. Anybody here perfect?

We model ourselves after Jesus, who was perfect, but we’re not going to be able to pull it off all the time.

We have to love ourselves in spite of that. Every person in this room has been damaged by the world and the people in it in some way or another. Some of us more than others, but it’s not about comparative suffering.

We need to realize that the people who cause harm in this world have themselves been deeply damaged.  They are so damaged that that damages overflows out of them and spills on to others. It is difficult to realize that we cannot fix them.

But we can heal ourselves – so that we cause less damage in this world. We do that by orienting ourselves consistently to justice and mercy and love, for ourselves and for others.

That’s important. Don’t be your own enemy either.

And when we get knocked off that path -as will happen – for are we perfect? – when we get knocked off that path, we pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off and we keep going. Or maybe someone else reaches down and gives us a hand up and we keep going together. That’s the meaning of community and relationship.

We do not give in to enmity. We do not give in to hatred and hard-heartedness. Not as individuals and not as a community.

In community we practice love and compassion and justice and mercy and are strengthened for these tasks for our own individual journeys.

Be generous of spirit, my friends.  

Be nurtured in in the Spirit, so that you can live as a loving, compassionate, joyful person in a harsh world.

We are born interdependent and we live our lives that way.


Image from stained glass windows at Shepherd of the Valley Church, Hacienda Heights, CA


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