Go, love. The rest is footnotes
Readings: Leviticus 19:13-18; Matthew 5:38-48
Last weekend was a good weekend. On Friday, I travelled up to Stockport, went through a wedding rehearsal, shared a drink with the families and ate at the second best Indian restaurant in the city…according to Tripadvisor! On the Saturday, I had the enormous privilege of marrying two of my close friends before eating and drinking, catching up with old friends and making new ones, playing games, toasting speeches and tearing up the dance floor until the early hours of the morning. On Sunday, with bleary eyes and hoarse voices, we shared coffee and croissants and bathed in the afterglow of the previous day before saying our goodbyes and heading homeward. That evening, as I collapsed into bed…way before Radio Wales’ finest 2 hours…I mused over the past couple of days and reflected on a weekend that was special and sacred and immersed in love. ‘People are good; life is wonderful; God is love’.
On Monday morning, I knew I had to face the tsunami of emails that would have blessed my inbox in my three days away so I fired up the laptop, put the kettle on and readied myself. The one I came to first…the one I had most recently received came from a good friend of mine from the States, a Presbyterian minister from Georgia who had written just seven words and this is what they said:
“The world is crappy. I give up.”
I was soon to learn that it was the mass shooting, the mass murder of 49 people in a club in Orlando that prompted her email. On the Saturday evening, I had laughed and danced and celebrated with friends and God’s love was tangible. Later that same evening in Orlando, others laughed and danced and celebrated with friends and God’s children were killed. And the atrocity in Orlando isn’t the only reason why many of us find ourselves feeling like my friend from Georgia. Alongside our own personal struggles and private griefs, we might look to the world stage and weep – we could look westwards to the presidential campaign and the sexist, racist, sabre-rattling tv star who is gaining in popularity and only one step away from the White House, to the east, to the ceaseless, senseless whirlwind of violence in Syria that little seems to touch, or even just around us in this nation, as our ears are filled with referendum rhetoric that appeals to our most base human qualities, to fear and greed and hatred – to men shouting at each other on ships, refugees being treated with contempt, and a politician shot dead on the street.
“The world is crappy,” My friend wrote. “I give up.”
For many of the people listening to Jesus that day he taught on a mount, the world would have seemed crappy. In first century Israel, healthcare was nonexistent, employment often a struggle, life expectancy low. Added to this, the land was under occupation from the Romans who could belittle, persecute or kill the Jewish inhabitants with little or no cause. Many had had enough. Some ran to the desert to create small, hopeful communities away from Roman tyranny; some gave up on their identity, on their faith, and bought into the ways of the Empire to make the best of what they could get; others seethed with anger and looked to the day that they would rise up, take arms and seek revenge on their oppressors. To them all, Jesus said;
“Turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, give to everyone who begs from you and love your enemies… pray for them!”
We’re used to these words today. They’ve become part of the modern lexicon such that those who don’t go to church know and quote them whilst many of us who do go can sink into a fog of familiarity when we read them. We have heard them so many times that perhaps we fail to be open to their challenge; that we fail to truly hear the scandal of Jesus’ message. To the oppressed, the struggling, the scared, he says:’ Do not seek vengeance, love. Do not cease giving, love. Do not hate your oppressor, love. When the world seems crappy, love more fiercely, more passionately, more recklessly than ever’.
Of course, many of us, myself included, might want to say ‘’yes…but’; we might want to explain away Jesus’ commands and talk about context. After all, some commentators suggest that Jesus’ true teaching here lies in a deeper understanding of the customs of the day. I mean, Jesus’ words aren’t to be taken literally…are they? They must be more nuanced than that for we wouldn’t be telling the victim of domestic violence to turn the other cheek but to walk out the door. And if we gave all we had, how would we survive?! If we followed this teaching literally, what would happen to our whole financial system or defence policies? If we actually followed Jesus’ teachings it would turn our whole society upside down! Well, perhaps that’s exactly what Jesus was suggesting – to turn the world upside down! Perhaps that’s why some mocked him, condemned him, called him an insurrectionist and wanted him silenced. But we can’t do full justice to an exploration of this today – it will have to wait until next year when the lectionary gives us a few weeks on the sermon on the mount. For now, let me offer just three reflections on this passage.
Firstly, Jesus’ words tell us how we are to respond to hatred in the world. They tell us that we are to respond with love. The law given in Leviticus spoke of loving your neighbour, making sure you treat those within the group, those within the family, with love. Over the years the Israelites regularly suffered at the hands of other nations such that many called for separation, violence and vengeance. ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy’ they had been told but Jesus tells them, and us, to ‘Love your enemy and pray for your persecutors’. He tells us to meet hate with love. To go out of our way to show compassion, forgiveness, grace to everyone – to the lovely and the unlovable, to those who love us and those who would harm us! This isn’t some ethereal, cutesy or Hallmark kind of love – this is bold, challenging, sacrificial love. It’s the kind of love that sees a man praying for his murderers even as they are nailing him to a cross. This is the challenge of the gospel. Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, both of whom upheld the sermon on the mount as fundamental to their struggle for justice and peace, understood the challenge of this teaching and both were killed for their efforts. Our calling is not an easy one. Yet we cannot defeat evil with more evil. We cannot defeat prejudice with more prejudice; hate with more hate; violence with more violence. Our response, Jesus tells us, must be to love.
Secondly, more than simply a response to hate when the world feels crappy, our daily living, our rule of life must be to love. Over the last few weeks we’ve heard politicians in our nation and across the pond offer threats and incentives, predictions and promises. Well, the sermon on the mount is a sort of constitution for the church – a blueprint for a new community in which those who mourn will be comforted, the meek will inherit the Earth and everyone is to be loved. Love of God, of one another, of ourselves is to infuse our all thoughts and words and actions. We must allow it to permeate our daily living – from how we spend our time and energy to how we shop and vote. On Thursday, when we get to the polling stations, we should not be voting on rumours of what will make us richer or poorer or stronger. Instead, when we pick up that miniature pencil and put a cross in the box, we should be considering what is the most loving way to vote; of which way might promote greater care, most support, future flourishing for our sisters and brothers all over Wales, the UK, Europe and beyond. There is to be no boundary on benevolence; no limit on our love.
So, we are to love as a response to hatred, to love as a rule of life, and finally, to love as a reflection of the Father’s love. One of the things I remember well from my ordination was the number of people who came up to me and said ‘don’t you look like your Dad?’. I thought, how nice of these people to give me a chance to show forgiveness, grace and love so early in my time down here! I’m sure many of us have experienced the same thing – just this week a friend of mine told me of his shock when he looked in the mirror and saw his dad staring back at him! Naturally, many of us end up resembling our mothers and fathers, to greater or lesser frustration! But we are also asked to imitate, to reflect, to resemble our heavenly Father in our actions. “Be perfect,” says Jesus, “Just as your heavenly Father is perfect”. It’s a bit of a tall order, isn’t it?! But perhaps a better translation of the Greek is ‘Be complete’.
And we are most complete, most whole when we reflect the love of the God who shows no favouritism, no prejudice, who loves all of God’s children. The God who knows and loves us whatever our race, gender or age, whatever our sexuality, marital status or nationality, whatever our health, wealth or political allegiance. We are called to do the same. To love indiscriminately. And perhaps we can only do this when we see something of the extravagant, eternal love of God. Perhaps we learn how to be most gracious, forgiving, hospitable, and generous when we come to learn that we are children of the God who showers us all with abundant grace, compassion and love. This Father’s Day, perhaps it’s in remembering once again the radical, inclusive, scandalous love of our heavenly Father that we might hope to then reflect it.
In our scriptures, in the stories of God’s children, there is much said about the day when there will be no more hurt or suffering or death –the day when love will win and God will be all in all. In Matthew’s gospel, a few chapters on from the sermon on the mount, it’s compared to a wedding banquet, where the party is filled with guests gathered from the streets. Sometimes in life we get glimpses of this banquet and the joy and welcome and love that is to come. At other times, the party seems over, the world feels crappy and we feel like giving up. Perhaps it’s in those very moments that we need to remind one another that we are fully known, fully loved by the God who is with us in the messiness of life. Perhaps it’s in those moments that we learn of the challenge and cost of discipleship. Perhaps it’s in those moments that we are called to love more fiercely, more passionately, more recklessly than ever. Amen.