The news has been crazy in recent weeks with the trial of Michael Dunn, a white man in Florida who, thinking he was in danger, shot into a car of four black teenagers in the parking lot of a gas station in November of 2012, killing one of them. Not long after the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case, it has again inflamed racial tensions not too far below the surface, as well as conversations about Florida’s "Stand Your Ground" Laws. These cases inhabit a lot of tricky space – legally, certainly, but also about how we think about our relationships with each other, particularly with people who look different from us. A verdict came down last Saturday, and Mr. Dunn was found guilty of three counts of attempted second-degree murder as to the other occupants of the car, but the jury was not able to reach a verdict on the first-degree murder charge in the death of 17-year-old Jordan Davis.
But what struck me, out of all the hot air released by reporters and lawyers and others about this case, were the words of Jordan Davis’ parents. Last Saturday after the verdict they stepped up to a bank of microphones. His mother – and I will have a link when this is posted on our website so you can watch it – was grateful for the closure. Then she immediately said, "This is sad for Mr. Dunn.."…who will likely spend the rest of his life in jail. "And I will pray for him," she said, "and I have asked my family to pray for him…." I didn’t mean she was grateful for the verdict, believing justice was done. But it also made her sad. Jordan’s father followed suit: "It is not in my nature to not lash out, to not say inflammatory statements, but I have to hold that in, but I think Jordan our son deserves the best representation that he could have gotten, from us as his parents." He talked about the journey they had been on, about what a good kid they thought their son was. We have cried our eyes out, he said. "We want to have love in our hearts, and we want you to have love in your hearts, too. Thanks for coming today…." And they walked away.1
The crowds had heard the rumors. They had heard of people dropping their fishing nets and walking away from their families, of the way Jesus drew people to himself, healing with a touch. Leprosy – gone. Paralyzed – no more. Jesus found his way up the mountain, and begins his sermon with The Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Everyone in that crowd knew the brokenness – the marital conflict, the economic pressure, the illness of someone they love. They all had something. Then Jesus blessed them, telling them not that they COULD BE, but that they WERE salt, they WERE light, called to flavor their communities, shine in the darkness. It inspired them but, frankly, didn’t demand much of them either.
Then as my grandmother often said, Jesus "…quit preaching and went to meddlin.’" It starts subtly, talking about the law, and how he had come not to get rid of it, but to build on it. Then, in the passage Betty preached on last week, he says that not only is murder bad, but so is the anger beneath violence. He said your gifts mean nothing at church if you have a ruptured relationship with a brother or sister. He told the crowd that if they had looked at another person in lust, just looked, they had committed adultery in their heart. He challenged them on divorce, particularly men, who held the power in those days – to honor the promises they have made. This is the point where folks started squirming in their seats. Jesus wasn’t just concerned with right living, he was concerned with their hearts.
Today’s text contains the fifth and six of the "You have heard it said… but I say to you" constructions. ‘An eye for an eye…’ is found in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy2 – and has most often been understood as a way to restrain the excessive retaliation of that period.3 But that doesn’t matter to Jesus. Do not resist an evildoer, he says. Do not fight back. Jesus offers a examples: first, if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn and offer them the other. Take the insult and the pain. Don’t run away, but don’t you dare strike back. Stand firm, Jesus says.
The second two examples move us from the courtroom into the street. Presumably, my friend Dan Lewis writes, we speak here of a debtors’ court, where the adversary seeks literally to sue for the "shirt off your back." The two garments mentioned are the chiton, the "long underwear" garment worn next to the skin, and the himation, the loose fitting cloak or "toga-like" outer garment.4 Most commentators agree these two were the only garments normally worn and thus obedience to the Jesus ethic here would mean ending up naked, stripped bare as a protest against injustice. And on the way home they would likely run across a Roman soldier who had commandeered a civilian to carry his bag. Far from advocating resistance to the empire, Jesus here recommends a surprising sort of "one-upping" behavior for his followers: go the one mile required by the law, and then add one on top of that for good gospel measure.5 Jesus switches out the power dynamic in the final example, calling them to honor those in need by giving, by sharing with whoever walks up to you.
The sixth statement brings their strange logic to, Dan writes, a fittingly radical climax. You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy." This section steps up from the previous section, talking about those who are most wholly other. Enemies. Those who are not like you, who perhaps actively seek to cause you pain. This is getting serious. It is hard enough to think about folks we just dislike, or disagree with on all manner of issues. I wonder if you have someone like that in your life…a rift with a family member run deep, an ex-spouse, a coworker who betrayed you. Or enemies on a broader scale, political and military, terrorists. And this is not just about NOT being angry and hateful toward them, because that is hard enough. You, Jesus says, and the You is plural now, the community is to LOVE its enemies. Move toward them in love. Pray for those who persecute you. Bruner suggests that Christian worship services should regularly include prayers of intercession uttered specifically for enemies of the gospel and the Church.6 This is about as hard as it gets, friends. It seems like a pretty poor political or military strategy. I can’t say I like it. But Jesus doesn’t offer any qualifiers. He looks them in the eye on the side of the mountain, and says it is what you must do.
This kind of difficult grace is a way of living that may not solve all your problems the way you’d want. It will likely be painful. It is about living NOT according to the ways of the world, but keeping all your interactions rooted in the ethic of Jesus, rooted in God’s love for you, Christ’s promises, centered in baptism. Don’t worry about who other people are, Jesus says. Your job is to be who I made you to be. This happens when we hold our tongue when we really don’t want to, or don’t fire back on email or social media – the internet is particularly horrible on this stuff. This happens when we listen a bit longer, when we invest in understanding. This happens when we let go of ourselves, of our need to be RIGHT all the time, of our self-righteous tendencies that limit us from seeing the humanity of another.
Betty pointed me to a blog post this week that helped me, by a professor at Columbia University who does negotiation and conflict resolution globally. He wrote that the most dangerous four-letter word in the English language is THEM. T-H-E-M. "We label others as THEM rather than doing the hard work of trying to garner a more nuanced understanding of complex situations," he wrote. "We categorize others as THEM to protect us from ambiguity. We stereotype others as THEM to rationalize our own behavior."
"On a geopolitical scale, THEMification helps explain the frequent failure of peace talks. After all, how could we ever negotiate with them, who are always out to destroy us? On a personal scale THEMification allows us to escape responsibility and accountability in our relationships with our spouse/partner/coworker/boss/child/friend."7
For, Jesus says, God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?
It’s not US and THEM, Jesus says. It’s all us. It’s all US, together. Live, he says, as if you believed that were true. All praise be to God. Amen.
1. (This video is no longer available) Watch it yourself at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CQhooyfi2uA
2. Ex. 21:24, Lev. 24:20, Deut. 19:21
3. From the Rev. Dan Lewis’ paper on this text at The Well 2010, Davidson. Dan’s excellent exegesis informs much of this sermon.
4. Lewis; Boring, Eugene. “Matthew” The New Interpreter’s Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 1995, 194.
7. Simon, Dick. "The Most Dangerous Four-Letter Word In The English Language" Peace and Collaborative Development Network. Feb 16 2014. Courtesy of Rev. Betty Berghaus.