Epiphany 7a, February 23, 2014

February 24, 2014

Training For Perfection
Matthew 5:38-48

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 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. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

I watched the Olympics pretty regularly over the past two weeks even though there are aspects of Olympic competition that aren’t particularly enjoyable to me. On some level I’m intimidated by the abilities I see exhibited by every one of them, but I’m also a sucker for the various life stories they reveal and I’m crushed when my instantly chosen favorites get defeated. So when I watch the Olympics I’m basically going back and forth between jealousy and tragedy, but I can’t not watch. It’s some amazing video.

And I’m not just jealous of the athletes – I’m also impressed by what they have trained themselves to do. It’s hard for me to imagine the effort it takes to become a world-class athlete in any field. People aren’t born with the ability to dance on ice or to do flips with skis on. When you watch the Olympics you are watching people who have given themselves to a pursuit. Through effort, exercise, and endless practice they have trained their minds and their bodies to do phenomenal things. They’ve had good instruction, but you don’t just get told how to go down a mountain through tightly placed gates at 75 miles/hour – you have to practice.

Which is true of any extraordinary undertaking. In order to become good at anything significant you have to practice.

Certainly there’s some practice involved with becoming a disciple of Jesus. Given the verses we’ve heard this morning I’m thinking it might even be easier to become a world-class ski-jumper than a follower of Jesus. I’m sure the death rate is lower for ski-jumpers than it is for committed Christians. I was thinking about how hard it is to do the things that Jesus talks about in today’s passage when I happened to glance at today’s suggested Psalm reading, and I was amused by the contrast that I see between these lessons.
Psalm 119:33-40 goes like this:

Teach me, O Lord, 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.

Now if I hadn’t first read what Jesus had to say about what it actually means to observe the precepts of God – I would consider these verses from Psalm 119 to be nothing short of the sentiment of a very high minded person, and I’m sure there was some sincere yearning in the heart of this Psalmist, but after hearing Jesus say what it means to keep God’s law I can’t help but consider the author of this Psalm to be a bit clueless.

I mean, I wish I could say to God, Oh, if I only knew what you wanted me to do I would get up at any hour of the morning, I would spend any amount of money, I would go wherever you would have me be – if only I knew what you wanted. Don’t you see God how anxious I am to know what you want? Don’t you think I’m deserving of a good life because I have such enthusiasm for your agenda?!

But I can’t say this to God – not after hearing what Jesus had to say. Now to be fair, the person who penned this Psalm didn’t have the benefit of the clarity that Jesus provided, but I’m not sure if that would have helped this person understand what he was asking. Because if the person who penned this Psalm ever looked up from his study of the Torah, I think he would have already known to have some fear of what he was asking. It’s never been easy to follow the instructions of God. God spoke very clearly to Moses, and he didn’t want to do it! Moses gave God every excuse known to man as to why he shouldn’t go talk to Pharoah – it sounded too hard and too dangerous!

I know it’s not a Christian thing to do to make fun of a Psalmist, but I really do find the attitude portrayed in this small section of Psalm 119 to be a bit comical. He’s acting as if it would be a pleasure to serve God if God would simply enable him to see what he needs to do. I’m not saying I always know what God wants me to do, God knows how clueless I can be, but when I hear what Jesus has to say I find myself wishing I didn’t know as much as I do.

Jesus is giving some clear advice in our passage this morning and I don’t really like what he had to say. I don’t guess that’s a very Christian thing to say either, but I don’t really want to love my enemies. I want to dehumanize and humiliate my enemies. I like to think my enemies are God’s enemies, and I wish God would smite our common enemies, but I can see that this really isn’t a Christian way to think.

Jesus didn’t want us to stay stuck in our natural ways of thinking about how life should be ordered. Jesus didn’t want us to bring God in to our battles – Jesus wanted us to step out of our natural way of reacting to the struggles we encounter in life and to step in to a more divine way of responding to one another.

And I sort of get that. I know that retribution always escalates and that there’s never any end to the cycle of retaliation. But Jesus wasn’t just concerned with the kind of logic that leads to mutually assured destruction. He didn’t just want us to turn the other cheek to those who strike us just so we wouldn’t blow up the planet.

Jesus didn’t just want us to avoid disaster, he wants us to obtain life in the kingdom of God. He wasn’t concerned with the politics of any institution. He was concerned about our souls. And he knew that in order for us to not get caught up in snares of this world – we have to practice the etiquette of heaven. And we have to practice a lot, because the things he asks us to do don’t come natural.

I was reminded of the difficulty of practicing heavenly etiquette when someone showed me a letter the other day they had gotten from Mark Tooley, who is the director of UM Action – a very conservative advocacy group within our denomination. This is an organization that is seeking to develop outrage against people like me who want the United Methodist Church to become open and affirming to non-heterosexual people. It says on the outside of the envelope “Help Keep Renegade Bishop from Wrecking United Methodism!”. This mailing contains a long letter on the inside that is full of criticism of churches like ours and people like many of you who are working and praying for the removal of the language in the Book of Discipline that bans some people from ordination because of their sexual orientation, and prevents us from being able to celebrate same-sex marriages. And of course the letter includes an appeal for money to support their work.

You might say this letter establishes churches like ours as the enemy, and he is doing his best to rally more people and resources to oppose people like us who want the United Methodist Church to drop these bans. I don’t know Mr. Tooley, and he doesn’t know me, but I think you could say we are official enemies. I think it’s important to note that it’s not unchristian to have an enemy. If everyone you know is your enemy you might need to reassess your attitude, but Jesus didn’t say we shouldn’t have any enemies. Jesus had enemies, but he didn’t hate them. He loved his enemies, and he told us to do the same.

And that’s hard. It’s hard because I want to win this battle within the church. I want this language to get dropped. I don’t want to have to continue apologizing to people for the official intolerance of our church. I don’t want to have to talk about people’s sexual orientation in any more sermons. I don’t like this battle within our denomination. I hate to think that the NFL is about to become more inclusive than the UMC!

I don’t know how to win this battle, but I know how to lose it, and that is to let my irritation with my enemy turn in to hate. And this takes some practice. Loving my enemy is not what I want to do, but it’s what we’re called to do.

I wouldn’t even try to do it if Jesus wasn’t so clear about it, but he is, and I know there’s something here I need to practice. I’m not very good at loving people who work for things that I feel are wrong, but I have discovered that it helps me to remember that we are all frail humans trying to navigate our way through a difficult world.

I don’t know why some people are so threatened by this issue, and I hate the mean-spirited nature that some people have toward people who aren’t in the mainstream of human sexuality, but Jesus didn’t instruct us to go out and fix other people – Jesus says it’s our job to love them.

It’s not easy to know how to resist bad ideas without trying to destroy the people behind them, but that is what we are called to do. And I think the only way to do this is to do as Jesus did, and that is to care more about being loving than we care to be right. We are to care more to be loving than we care for our denomination. We are to care more about loving other people than we care about ourselves.

I don’t know if it’s good strategy for our righteous cause to love people like Mark Tooley, but it is the right thing to do if you want to join with all the other world-class saints who not only proclaimed their love for God, but who practiced that love on earth.

God is with us, but we’ve got to practice being with God. And practice and practice and practice.


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