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sermononmount1Matthew 5: 38-48
Introduction to the reading
In the verses for today, from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus engages aspects of the traditional Jewish law in a challenging new way.  He offers up antitheses – “you have heard it said, but I say to you…”

…an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth:  this may sound harsh to us but actually it is a rather civil form of retaliation.  Don’t come back at someone with all the destructive revenge you can muster.  Limit retaliation to that which was equal to the victim’s loss: an eye for an eye, but only an eye; a tooth for a tooth, but only a tooth.  

Would it surprise you to learn that churches are often prey for small time con artists, individuals who are in great need, right now  for money– for gas money, food money, train fare?  They are homeless, hungry, addicted or “passing through town and I thought you might be able to help me.”  And there are people who pass through town, I’ve learned, over and over again.  It is often difficult to discern who has a legitimate need.
Often their stories of why they need help – usually money – are quite elaborate.  These are some that have actually happened here:

  • She comes in the front door after worship on a Sunday morning.  Her car is broken down and fully loaded with art supplies and she has to get to Massachusetts by Monday;
  • We’re living in a trailer park used as a homeless shelter, I’m in an experimental cancer treatment program, my wife had to give up her nursing studies at county college and our boys will have no toys for Christmas.
  • She works as a house cleaner, a single mother with three children of her own and the legal guardian for her sister’s two while her sister serves out her jail time.  She has been sick and so hasn’t worked, is behind on her rent and her car needs repair.
  • He is a veteran of the Cuban army, has a green card, works the orchards in New York in the summer, then travels south to his brother’s home in Florida, has gotten a more permanent job in the Butterball factory in Arkansas, and keeps passing through Gladstone, stopping at our churches to get help with train fare and motel accommodations.
    Two of these tales of woe are legitimate and two are not.  Can you tell which is which?  The saying goes, “you can’t make this stuff up” but I say, “Oh, yes you can.”
    And Jesus says, “Give to everyone who begs from you and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”  Really?
    I pretty much have a policy, like most churches, that I do not hand out cash (we don’t even have much petty cash in the church office), although I have been known to dip into my own wallet once or twice.  When someone comes to me in need of paying rent or a utility bill, I use money from the pastor’s discretionary fund.  And I try to keep a supply of ShopRite coupons on hand for those who are hungry.  And everyone who comes, whether their story is true or desperately made up, everyone who comes is hungry in some way – hungry for caring and compassion, hungry for hope, hungry for love.
    But we cannot give to everyone who begs from us.  We cannot lend to anyone who wants to borrow from us.  And we do not turn the other cheek; we rarely go the extra mile.  Did Jesus mean for the disciples – the first ones and then on down to us – to take him literally when he had to know that would be impossible?
    Or did he mean for us to realize what the world could be like if we took God’s view of things, if we tried to practice what God wants and expects us to do, at least some of the time?  It would be a world of mercy, justice and hope, a good place to be alive in.  Jesus holds out the ideal:  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.  Leviticus tells God’s hope for the people of Israel:  You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.  Paul writes to the Corinthians:  Do you not know that you are God’s temple and God’s spirit dwells in you?

Everyone who comes, whether their story is true or desperately made up, everyone who comes is hungry in some way – hungry for caring and compassion, hungry for hope, hungry for love.  Everyone.  Including our enemies.  “You have heard that it was said,” said Jesus, “ ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”  Really…?  My enemy?
Well … who is one’s enemy?  And why?  A jealous competitor, trying to get ahead, a leg up, a win at someone else’s expense?  A mean bully, trying to overcome some sense of inferiority, to combat a sad family history, to right a long ago wrong?  Everyone who comes to us – or at us – is hungry in some way:  hungry for caring and compassion, hungry for hope, hungry for a different, better way, hungry for love.  
Jesus is telling us not to be combative or vengeful.  Being at war with someone (or within our own selves) is an isolating, unhappy way to live.  Jesus calls us to lean into the hard work of love and prayer for those who are in such need of it, even when we might be feeling pretty awful.
And why?  Because God is like this and we are God’s children and God’s spirit dwells in us.  We respond even to our enemies with the kind of compassion and desire for the good that expresses the way God feels about the world – unconditional love for each one of us.

Earlier I noted that this phrase – you have heard it said, but I say to you – are antitheses or oppositions.  But Jesus was not saying that he intended to replace the law with something different.  No.  He came to fulfill the law by embodying the spirit of the law and that is love.
I pray that we who carry his name can try to do likewise.  Really.

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
February 19, 2017

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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