The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ first discourse in Matthew’s Gospel. The first four chapters introduce the audience to Jesus as a kingly figure.
Jesus has amassed a great following from Galilee, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan. His audience is full of peasants who live at the subsistence level. They have known the heavy taxation of Rome and have experienced the evils of political oppression. But God’s kingdom is bigger than Roman rule. God’s power is greater than Roman oppression. Jesus does not rally them to overthrow the government. Neither are these would-be kingdom bearers called to suffer passively. They are called to do the unthinkable. They are called to love those who persecute them and pray for them. In Matthew’s Gospel love is not for the faint of heart; Jesus’ very mission is a demonstration of God’s love.
Matthew 5:38-48 (NRSV)
38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give 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.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so 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. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Welcome to this second Sunday of Ordinary Time, a time to focus on what it means to be a serving Christian.
As the Holy Spirit continues to call us to be Christ’s disciples, Christ becomes more than the divine center of the New Testament, more than an idea, but a living, acting being again. As we receive His Grace, we are inspired to serve as He would have us serve.
How then, and why, have we been asked to serve? How do we become channels of peace? How do we bring hope, light and joy to places where there is despair, darkness, or sadness?
We have, I believe, all been drawn to this church because it is a community of compassionate people. Our community offers vital programs that guide our little ones and our youth. We provide meaningful opportunities for fellowship within our community. We celebrate and honor the varied gifts and talents of the individuals in our community. We value our seniors, and we pray for people in need. We seek and embrace opportunities to serve our local community and our world.
Indeed, we take the “service” part of our Methodist vows seriously. If you joined the Methodist Church as a youth or an adult, you will recall your promise: to offer your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness as evidence of your commitment.
As a child, I thought “witnessing” was ONLY about asking if someone was saved and then, if they hadn’t, explaining how, through the words of John 3:16, and by praying ceaselessly, reading Scripture, and evangelizing to the world — we would all come to the table where the “saved” placard was on display. Perhaps as a child you thought the same. Of course, such witness is integral to being Christian, but our reasoning and personal experiences with other humans do not require we hit others over the head with such zealousness.
As we mature in our faith and move forward in that hope-filled, grace-filled “journey toward perfection,” we gain a broader understanding of what witnessing for God and serving Him means. Indeed, we learn how serving is a form of witnessing. And how that serving pleases God and blesses our experiences on this planet.
Last week, Rev. Rob’s message was about “shifting out of neutral.” He talked about Christians being the “salt of the earth” who must not lose their flavor. He said that “doing no harm,” while admirable, is not enough. If we Christians develop a “social cocoon” for just ourselves, we are like salt that has lost its flavor.
In Rev. Rob’s words, we are called to preserve and sustain what it means to be a “spiritually minded person,” people who are truly the “salt of the earth.” In the Scripture last week, Christ gave the Pharisees the message to “go and do likewise” as the good Samaritan had when he involved himself in the suffering of someone unlike himself. In fact, the injured man was an enemy that other so-called godly people had seen and passed by, leaving the man to die.
Service is not “drudgery,” but a doorway to something wonderful. Serving our Lord becomes a personal value giving us a life that sustains not just ourselves, but everyone and everything else we encounter. Through service, we become committed to preserving that which matters. We have indeed “shifted out of neutral.”
Today we are called to “Step Through the Open Door,” that is, “walk our talk,” put our faith into action through service, and through this service, witness for the God who has told us not only to love our neighbors, but also to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies and pray for them as well.
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Right? Right! Well, thank Heaven for John Wesley who made the journey toward perfection just “little more” humanly manageable by saying . . .
“Do all the good you can.
By all the means you can.
In all the ways you can.
In all the places you can.
At all the times you can.
To all the people you can.
As long as ever you can.”
Well, that makes this perfection thing “a little more humanly possible.”
Sometimes, as human beings in a world where all too often “might is right” and our egos lure us into being our own worst enemy, doing what is right is a very hard job. We fall short. Sometimes quite short.
It’s hard dealing with those dog-gone enemies, isn’t it? Really hard to turn the other cheek. To go another mile for someone who didn’t even appreciate the first mile. Oh, we do it for people we care about, or if our pay check is dependent upon it because our boss seems more like an enemy than a friend, but — those selfish drivers in traffic who cut us off? . . . those angry people posting ugly rants on Facebook? . . . those people with their scowls and tattoos and body piercings? . . . those people with the loud music or those celebrities with their scandalous behavior, or those oddly dressed people carrying prayer rugs — well, gee, gosh, I’m supposed to love them, too?
Isn’t it enough I thank God every day for my many blessings, for the people who loved me enough to teach me right from wrong, for the poverty and ignorance I have risen above? For being born in this country instead of Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Guatemala, Venezuela, the Ukraine?
No. It is not enough.
For me, what lies beneath the commands (note– not the hints or suggestions) of Matthew 5:38-48 is forgiveness. Forgiveness, when you think about it, is a form of witness and service on a very personal level. It is not the only open door we need to step through, but it is an important one and basic to Christian love.
“For there is no love without forgiveness, and there is no forgiveness without love.”
Have you ever been betrayed by a friend or co-worker? Has your closest friend ever deserted you at a time when you most needed him or her? As a child or an adult, have you ever been teased or tormented by hateful or thoughtless people without mercy?
Well, you are not alone, of course. There’s a guy in the New Testament who had the same experiences, and all of them in the last week of His life. And we all know what His last words were. He even taught us how to pray to God, to ask Him to “forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
But, oh. My. Gosh. What a tall order that is.
What exactly is forgiveness?
Generally, forgiveness is a decision to let go of resentment and thoughts of revenge. It’s a “mind thing.” isn’t it, as well as a “heart thing?” The act that hurt or offended us might always remain a part of our life, but forgiveness can lessen its grip on us and help us focus on the positive aspects of our lives. Forgiveness can lead to feelings of empathy, compassion and even understanding for the ones who have hurt us.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we deny the other person’s responsibility for hurting us. Nor does it minimize or justify the wrong. We can forgive the person without excusing the act. Forgiveness brings a kind of peace that helps us get on with a more empowered life.
I have a couple of stories to share with you that illustrate the freedom and the empowerment that comes from forgiving.
Dixie Gillaspie was 8 years old when her father began to abuse her.
She grew up in a small town in southeast Kansas. Her parents were members of a secretive, evangelical Christian community that met in people’s homes. Her upbringing was very conservative and strict, with harsh physical punishment, but it also had an idyllic veneer.
“It’s like you’re watching all these fairy tales and someone slips a horror story in the middle of it,” she said. “I assumed that as long as I didn’t talk about the horror movies, I could go back to the fairy tales, and that’s what kept me safe.”
Gillaspie, a popular speaker, business coach and author in St. Louis, had never spoken publicly about this part of her childhood until Maya Angelou died recently. The poet and author also had been raped as a young child a few miles from where Gillaspie, age 50, now lives.
Gillaspie, whose father died decades ago, wrote in a blog post for the The Good Men project the day after Angelou’s death: “It’s here in the same city that I sit with my silence. And feel her strong north wind of a voice. And know that strings are moving, and I can be silent no longer.”
She refuses to be seen as a victim, although she says she had been physically and sexually abused by her father for years. She knows black eyes, bruises on her body, blisters on her legs, welts on her back and visits at night. For years, she blocked out the worst of those memories and struggled with depression and survived a couple of suicide attempts.
In her early 20s, her father was dying of cancer. She went back home with her then-boyfriend and future husband, Tom Gillaspie, and nursed him in his final months. She decided to put what had happened to her before in a separate box of a previous life.
“I could have a family and pretend it didn’t happen. Or I could hold on to my story, and not have a family. It wasn’t a matter of forgiveness; I wanted a family,” she said. “It’s how I survived. It’s not going to be everyone’s choice.”
Most days during that time she and Tom didn’t leave her parents’ home. They slept on a makeshift pallet on the laundry room floor, and she was up several times a night to care for her father.
One day, they went to visit Tom’s family a couple of hours away. They stayed later than they intended. When she rushed in to check on her father, he started with, “Where have you been? You said you’d be back to help. …”
Suddenly, he stopped and said “I’m sorry.”
She went through the motions of turning him in the bed and says she must have given him his medicine and food, but she doesn’t remember those details. All she could hear was “I’m sorry.”
She sat on the back step of the house and bawled.
It was the first time she could remember hearing those words from her father.
She was 23 when he died.
In her late 20s, the memories of abuse were an avalanche and refused to be ignored. She has been in therapy, written a fictionalized book of her story and confided in a few close friends over the years. She had to confront it internally and admit to herself the extent of the abuse. She had to believe that she did not deserve it, that she didn’t ask for it. Eventually, Dixie began asking herself: What do I have to do in order for my story to do any good?
She wanted to share her story without any desire for pity or anger on her behalf. She has stopped keeping track of who knew and didn’t know about her past. She needed to say that forgiveness is for your own sake. Compassion doesn’t mean you don’t condemn what was wrong or punish what needs to be punished.
She needed to realize it was OK to let go of bitterness, anger and hate.
The months she cared for the man who she says attacked her repeatedly for years brought its own healing to her.
“I had those months to get to know the man my father wanted to be. And I still miss that man.”
The doorway opened, and Dixie Gallaspi stepped through.
We hear similar stories of forgiveness through positive action when we see what the Mothers Against Drunk Driving have done in the wake of their losses . . . or when we learn of Terri Roberts, the Pennsylvania mother whose son in 2006 barricaded himself inside an Amish schoolhouse near Lancaster, tied up 10 girls and opened fire, killing five and injuring five others before taking his own life.
Once a week, Terri spends time with a 13-year-old Amish girl named Rosanna who sits in a wheelchair and eats through a tube. Roberts bathes her, sings to her, reads her stories. She can only guess what’s going on inside Rosanna’s mind because the girl can’t talk.
The Amish responded to this horrible loss by offering immediate forgiveness to the killer — even attending his funeral — and embracing his family.
Terri Roberts forgave, too, and now she is sharing her experience with others, saying the world needs more stories about the power of forgiveness and the importance of seeking joy through adversity.
“I realized if I didn’t forgive him, I would have the same hole in my heart that he had. And a root of bitterness never brings peace to anyone,” Roberts said. “We are called to forgive.”
The doorway opened, and Terri Roberts stepped through.
And finally there is Scarlett Lewis of Newtown, Connecticut, who lost her beautiful son Jesse in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. She and her older son J.T. say they have learned to forgive the shooter, Adam Lanza, for what he did and no longer feel anger toward him.
How is that possible? we ask ourselves.
“For me, it was the only way I could go on with my personal power intact,” Lewis explains.
Not long after the massacre, Lewis’ therapist put her in virtual touch with a group of survivors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. It was through them that Lewis says she learned to forgive.
“These young adults had seen their entire families murdered in front of them,” she says. “They said, ‘We want you to know we’ve been through this. We know you’re going to be okay. Here’s our equation for healing.’ And it was basically living a life of gratitude, forgiving those who had murdered their families, and making a conscious decision to do that so they could move on without anger in themselves. And service to others. Because when you give to others you get so much more back.”
Lewis and her son took that message to heart, she says, and made the decision to forgive, using the Rwandans’ experience as perspective.
“If they could forgive the neighbors who came in and murdered their families, then we could forgive Adam Lanza,” she says.
Lewis has now created the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation, to develop programs to teach children that they have the power to change thoughts and choose a life without hate.
The doorway opened, and Scarlett Lewis stepped through. [http://canadaam.ctvnews.ca/mother-of-sandy-hook-victim-finds-healing-through-forgiveness-1.1590901]
The list goes on over the pages of history . . . Rwanda, Nazi Germany, the Jim Crow American South, the nation of South Africa. . . .
Nelson Mandela said, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
Lewis B. Smedes, a renowned Christian author and theologian of the 20th Century, said “You will know that forgiveness has begun when you recall those who hurt you and feel the power to wish them well.”
And who was in the front row at Mandela’s inauguration? His prison guards.
Many of us have, as Thoreau said, lived lives of quiet desperation. We have not suffered as heavily as others. Our indignities pale in comparison to the people whose stories I have just shard. Still, these indignities — whether great or small — can take over our thoughts and hold us back.
And what if I’m the one who needs forgiveness?
Mitch Albom, in his book Tuesdays With Morrie, writes “It’s not just other people we need to forgive. We also need to forgive ourselves. For all the things we didn’t do. All the things we should have done.” And all the things we said and did in anger.
The first step is to honestly assess and acknowledge the wrongs we’ve done and how those wrongs have affected others. At the same time, we shouldn’t judge ourselves too harshly. We’re human, and we all make mistakes. If we’re truly sorry for something we’ve said or done, then we should consider admitting it to those we’ve harmed. We can speak of our sincere sorrow or regret, and specifically ask for forgiveness — without making excuses.
Forgiveness is a commitment to a process of change. In most cases, it takes time. When we’re ready, we can actively choose to forgive the offending person, even ourselves for the harmful effect our words or actions have had on someone else.
In the fourth chapter of Philippians, Paul provides an avenue for moving forward and releasing the anger, the disappointment, the pain:
“Finally, brothers, whatever things are true, whatever things are honorable, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report; if there is any virtue, and if there is any praise, think about these things. The things which you learned, received, heard, and saw in me: do these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
None of us needs to define our life by how we’ve been hurt, do we? In our humanness, we can vent if we must at first, but sooner or later we can strive to get past it, soothe our souls and look for ways to remind ourselves that we are children of God. The compassion and understanding that transcends from God our Father is more than recompense for the personal affront or the suffering.
Maya Angelou said, “You can’t forgive without loving. And I don’t mean sentimentality. . . I mean having enough courage to stand up and say, ‘I forgive. I’m finished with it.'”
No amount of guilt can solve the past and no amount of anxiety can change the future.
Ephesians 4:32 sums it up: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
Shakespeare gave us a tormented Hamlet who refused to suffer those slings and arrows and took revenge for his father’s murder, but Shakespeare also gave us Portia in the Merchant of Venice. In Act IV, scene 1, she addresses the manipulative moneylender, Shylock, concerning the “Quality of Mercy.”
The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.
But mercy is above this sceptered sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute of God himself;
And earthly power doth then show like God’s
When mercy seasons justice.
As we walk into the week ahead, may we strengthen our own spiritual life and bless the lives of others through love, compassion, understanding, and forgiveness.
The light of God surrounds us.
The love of God enfolds us.
The power of God protects us.
The presence of God watches over us.
Wherever we are, God is,
And all is well.
[prayer source: http://unitychurchinmilwaukee.org/site/?page_id=355]
Note: Thanks to Rev. Rob White for asking me to fill in while he was at annual conference and thanks to our pastoral care minister, Rev. Sarah Steidtman (also at conference) who wrote the pastoral prayer provided earlier in the service. Her prayer complements my sermon so clearly and oddly enough, I did not look closely at her prayer until after I wrote out my first draft. I am posting it below.]
As we seek the quiet of this moment, we ask for the patience to slow down and observe carefully, so that we may practice the virtues we admire in others and yearn for in ourselves.
In his ministry Jesus preached a message of love; let us remember that love comes from the heart, and can be given generously as gifts of time when we truly listen — to our children, our parents, our friends and even our foes.
In his ministry, Jesus preached a message of peace; may we live peacefully in our homes and communities. Let us welcome his spirit there, so we may remember how to live respectfully with our differences.
In his ministry Jesus preached a message of forgiveness; remind us, Lord, to release our grudges against others and allow us to forgive ourselves when we fall short. Allow us to experience both the grace of forgiving others as well as being forgiven.
Divine spirit, hold us in your warm embrace. Give us the strength to return to our spiritual center, our intrinsic good nature. Heal us from the burdens weighing heavily upon our hearts.
As we breathe deeply in this quiet space, let patience, peace, compassion; forgiveness, love, and joy take a ride inside. When we emerge from our prayerful bliss, let us walk each day inspired by the spirit of God working within us and around us. We come to you, Oh God, on this day — as we have on many other days — to express our appreciation for being in fellowship with you and this community of faith.
Hear this prayer and those silent petitions resting on our hearts. We pray in Jesus name who taught his followers when gathered in community to pray — Our Father, …