January 29, 2017; Rev. Dr. Buz Wilcoxon
You can’t escape the question these days. The news over these last few days, these last few weeks forces us to ask: Who do we consider our enemy? And how are we called to treat them? Jesus answers that question loud and clear in this text. He tells us quite simply: “Be perfect.” Is that all we have to do? “Be perfect?” We’ll that doesn’t seem that hard does it? The Boy Scouts say, “Be prepared.” The Army says, “Be all that you can be.” Trying to sell us a few more of his books, Joel Olsteen says, “Be comfortable with who you are.” But not Jesus? No, Jesus say, “Be Perfect.” That’s all there is to is. Of course, we all fail, every one of us, every day, probably every hour. We can’t be perfect! What Jesus is asking of us seems impossible. So what are we supposed to do with this kind of scripture?
Well, first let’s slow down a bit and take a look at what Jesus is actually saying. He begins by quoting a passage from the Old Testament, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” It comes from the book of Exodus, but this rule is a pretty universal rule found in nearly every culture throughout human history. Let the punishment fit the crime: You hit me, I hit you back. You steal from me, I steal from you. You attack my country, we attack you back. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Historians call this the Lex Talionis, the Law of the Talon. Whether its kids on the playground or gang violence in the streets or nuclear proliferation around the world, the law stays the same: fight fire with fire, fight hate with hate, violence with violence. This is who we are as people. This is the bloody story of humanity. It’s what fills our newsfeeds each day. It’s the mantra that we tell ourselves about what we must do to make things right. It’s called the “myth of redemptive violence.” The only way to combat a threat is to threaten right back.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” But instead, Jesus calls us to something different. He offers us examples of peaceful, nonviolent resistance. When someone tries to shame you with a slap, turn the other cheek. When, a debtor holds power over you to take your coat, give them the clothes off your back. When a Roman soldier forces you to carry their gear for a mile, carry it a second mile to shame them. Jesus is talking about symbolic actions taken by people who are being crushed by the powers of the world. Symbolic actions that empower the oppressed with the power of peace.
You are not a victim, you are an agent, empowered with the tools of love. These actions are the kind of non-violent resistance that in recent decades Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. employed and advocated for as the only real way to make change in society. Neither passive victimhood on the one hand nor the violence of resorting to an “eye for an eye” on the other hand. Following Christ’s life and teachings, King offered a third way: nonviolent acts of resistance to evil. King proclaimed, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Those are the kind of actions that Jesus is talking about…at first. But then he goes even deeper, deeper than the actions we take, all the way down to the inner workings of our hearts. He says we are to love our enemies. Love our enemies with the same love that we feel toward neighbors. That’s not possible, though is it? Because as soon as we break the cycle and turn our hearts from hate to love of an enemy, then they are no longer and enemy. You can’t love someone and still see them as your enemy, can you? Maybe that’s precisely the point.
When Jesus compels his followers to love their enemies as their neighbors, his original audience would have heard that in a very political way. For the Jewish people of Israel, the enemy was clearly the Roman Empire, and their neighbors were fellow Jews. When Jesus says love your enemy, he’s talking about loving the very people who invaded and conquered your homeland. The people who attacked, imprisoned, and executed your friends and family. The people who still occupy your country with their military force. That’s who we’re supposed to love as if they were one of our closest neighbors? Jesus, we simply can’t do that. It’s too hard.
Loving not just a person, but a whole group of people who hate us, despise us, and want to attack us, that’s hard work. It’s risky—maybe even life-threatening to treat an enemy as a loved one. That seems like impossible work. It’s much easier to hate our enemies back. To return darkness for darkness. An eye for an eye. It’s much easier to turn our backs on those who are different than ourselves. It’s much easier to let fear take control, to let fear guide our policies as a nation, to let fear keep us from moving into certain neighborhoods, to let fear cause us to cross over to the other side of the street rather than risk walking past someone who is different. It’s much easier to let the lines of communication stay broken and refuse to speak to those who have offended us. It’s much easier to play by the same old rules of humanity, to buy into the myth of redemptive violence. But Jesus says, “love your enemies.” You can’t love someone if your refuse to welcome them, refuse to look them in the eye, refuse to listen. Jesus says, “love your enemies” and “be perfect.” But honestly, most days, we just aren’t up to the task, are we?
Many of you already know this story, you were here when it happened a decade ago. The story of Stan Chassin and Tommy Tarrants, or as some have called it, “The Miracle at Spring Hill Presbyterian Church.” It happened before I was here, and before some of you were here as well, but some of you remember. Stan Chassin and Tommy Tarrants had grown up in Mobile, both attended Murphy High School in the 1960’s. Stan was Jewish, and Tommy was a racist young man who had bought into the racial rhetoric of fear, learning to hate Jews, Black people, anyone who didn’t look like himself, who came from a different country or culture or religion. One day at school, Tommy grabbed Stan by the throat, called him a racial slur and said that if he ever saw him again, he would kill him. Tommy later let that fear and hate grow. He went on to join the Ku Klux Klan, and he was arrested after attempting to bomb the home of a Jewish man in Mississippi. In his jail cell, Tommy began to read the Bible. I can just imagine him reading the very passage from Sermon on the Mount about radical love that transforms enemies into neighbors. Tommy became a changed man. He accepted Jesus as his savior. He devoted himself to spreading the good news of God’s love. Then, one night, he came to speak at this church, in our Fellowship Hall, to tell his story of the conversion of a Klansman. And unbeknownst to anyone, his old classmate Stan was in the audience. Stan had heard that Tommy was coming to town and he wanted to see for himself if there was any truth to this change in him. Stan had been at his synagogue weeks before and in the midst of prayer heard God speaking to him, telling him to forgive Tommy. So, after the talk, it was time for questions from the audience, and Stan stood up and said, “It’s hard facing you.” He told everyone in the crowd about how Tommy had bullied him and threatened to kill him decades ago. There was a pause, and a few people worried that Stan might be here to take revenge against his old enemy. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” But instead, [he said, “I’m here to ask your forgiveness for hating you for all these years.” The one who had been on the receiving end of violence was giving and asking for grace and forgiveness.] Stan walked forward, went to shake Tommy’s hand, and the two men embraced. That’s what God’s perfect love looks like. God’s perfect love that can transform enemies into neighbors, years of hate and fear into a welcome embrace.
When Jesus tells us to be perfect, he doesn’t mean we can never make a single mistake. That’s impossible. No, Jesus says, “Be perfect as you Father in heaven is perfect.” It’s not about us, but about who God is. It all hinges on who we believe God to be. Jesus is saying that if you believe you are a child of God, then you are a child of the one whose love is perfect. So, as one in God’s family, show that perfect love. Not your own perfect actions, but God’s perfect love (that shines through even with all our imperfections). Show God’s perfect love to all God’s children, even enemies—to all God’s children, even schoolyard bullies and horrible bosses, to all God’s children, even refugees and immigrants, to all God’s children even political opponents and those you disagree with. Show God’s love to all God’s children, even the neighbor you can’t stand, or the friend who betrayed you, or the family member you aren’t speaking to, or the stranger who was rude to you, or the person who should know better.
Show God’s love to all God’s children, even to enemies, not because of who they are…because they aren’t perfect; not because of who you are…because you aren’t perfect. Show God’s love (as risky as it may be) because of who God is, the one who is perfect, whose perfect love has been to show to us in the gift of his own son. He showed God’s love his enemies, he loved them to death. When we tried with all our might to use all the weapons we had against him, Christ did not return evil for evil. He did not fight back, but prayed for us. On the cross he broke the cycle of hate, he shattered the myth of redemptive violence, and in the end, he was victorious against even the enemy of death itself.
Jesus says, “Be perfect” because God is perfect. We know we aren’t up for the task. He knows it too. Being perfect isn’t something we can do…but it is something God can do, in us, through us, in spite of us. God can use us to make his perfect love know in the world. God can us, even us to transform enemies into neighbors…will we let him? As children of God, will we let him use our lives to break the cycles of fear, to break the patterns of hatred, to break the power of violence? Will we let him? Will we extend the hand, will we welcome the stranger and the outcast, the poor and the oppressed? Will we pick up the phone and make that call we’ve been avoiding to mend a broken relationship? Will we forgive as we have been forgiven? Will we let God’s perfect love work in us to transform the world?
To God alone be the glory.
One of our church members, Bill Layfield, has a saying that he often uses in his work with AA groups: “I can’t. God can. I think I’ll let him.” Jesus calls us to be perfect. We can’t. But God can. I hope we’ll let him—let his perfect love shine through us, even amidst all our imperfections.
 AL.com article describing the event: http://blog.al.com/pr/2008/01/forgive_our_tresspasses.html [The bracketed portion is another detail of the story that was shared with me after the sermon.]