Uncommon Sense

Preached by Rev. Donna Hopkins Britt, February 19, 2017
Scripture: Matthew 5:38-48, Lev. 19:1-2, 9-18

Rev. Donna Hopkins Britt

When Thomas Paine was writing Common Sense in the mid-1770’s, many people in the American colonies were pleased to have the king of England as their head of state.  Yes, it was a long 4,000-mile sail to England to ask permission for various things; yes, there were other problems; but they couldn’t imagine those problems being worth a revolt.  Better just to leave things the way they are.

Thomas Paine sought to prove that, if they remained tied to England, there would be no status quo.  Things would get worse for people in the Colonies, no matter what.  Better to take a stand, he expressed: establish their independence and their own government.  The greater gain was worth the losses; that was “common sense.”

As in the American colonies, Jesus and his followers were living under foreign rule.  Rome was their distant ruler.  Like the colonies, if Jesus and those like him stayed in their place, accepting foreign rule, there would be the appearance of peace.  If they protested, or revolted, they knew they would experience the harsh weight of the Roman Empire.  Fear works; it is how many governments stay in control.  If you saw the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, you may remember how those in control deterred disobedience, such as by pirates.

When living under a ruler one preferred were not in power, how does one live in a way that would please God? How does one live as a faithful disciple of Jesus?

Jesus sought to explain his uncommon form of living to his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount, from which today’s Gospel passage is taken. We’re about a third of the way through the Sermon.  Jesus started with the Beatitudes, if you’re familiar with them, and he has continued with six “antitheses,” they’re called; six contrasts that begin with, “You have heard that it was said …” where Jesus reminds of them of Hebrew scriptures, as we have been reminded this morning. Common knowledge, such as the scriptures, was common sense.

But then Jesus contrasts this common knowledge with a radical new understanding of God’s reign: “But I say to you…” something surprising, that pierces more deeply into human nature.  Anytime we encounter this little 3-letter word “BUT” in scripture, it’s like a flashing yellow light cautioning us to “Pay attention!”

Verse 38 is # 5 in the series of 6 antitheses or contrasts, “You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” [This is called lex talionis, or “the law of retaliation”] 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also….”

This is not common sense.  Common sense says that if you turn the other cheek, you’re setting yourself up to be a doormat; you’re setting yourself up for defeat.

The Lady of the Rivers, a book by Philippa Gregory, is set mostly in England, in the 1400’s, when turf wars were different, but still common. The English king is a devout Christian, and requests from opposing forces a truce on Palm Sunday.  When the opposing leader sends word that he does not agree with the truce, the king’s advisers recommend that his army be equipped and ready for battle.  The pious king, who was not mentally well, calls on Jesus’ command to “turn the other cheek.”  This is not common sense.

Jesus seems to have no great concern for what makes sense to commoners like ourselves.  He sees with a different perspective. He sees with God’s eyes.

Abbé Michel Quoist wrote a book of prayers published about 70 years ago.  In one prayer, he begins his prayer to Jesus:

I would like to rise very high, Lord;
Above my city,
Above the world,
Above time.
I would like to purify my glance and borrow your eyes.

I would then see the universe, humanity, history, as the Father sees them….
Everything summed up in you, things on Earth and things in Heaven.

Jesus understood that every day, every act could be filled with love. Every part of chapter five of Jesus’ adds a wheelbarrow full of concrete to the foundation of the house of Love.  The holy house of love is not built on the gooey, fleeting feeling of new, romantic love, though that is really fun!  …Real Love is expressed in action.  It is lived.  It also is uncommon sense.

40… 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.

 Jesus’ goal is not merely non-retaliation, but taking what is handed to us, even if it’s malicious, and transforming it, making it better than it was.  People could sue for a coat, but if someone gave away their cloak, they would have nothing to wear.  Literally, nothing.  Roman soldiers could impress upon a commoner to carry his gear for a certain distance only. Pick up his gear, and carry it twice as far, Jesus says. And if you have something to share with someone who begs, or seeks to borrow, give.  Do not refuse.

In a book about poverty (What Every Church Member Should Know about Poverty), Ruby Payne and Bill Ehlig tell of a person who was part of the poverty class.  He asked a friend to keep the money he was earning, because he knew, if someone asked for it, he would give it to them.  It wasn’t because he was threatened; it’s just the way of life.  If you have something to share, you do so.

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” Jesus concludes.

Our God in heaven is perfect by being gracious and patient, generous and forgiving.  When we act like God, we are perfect … or whole, or mature, or complete, which are other translations of that Greek word “teleios.”

Jesus concludes the whole section by funneling it all down to love. If we are familiar with Leviticus, and who of us isn’t… just kidding about that … Let me start again, if we were as familiar with Leviticus as Jesus was, we would have known this regulation from the Lord:

18You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself….

As such, Jesus begins the final of the six antitheses:

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;

Restated: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Loving our neighbor—people who are nearby; people who are like us—can be inconvenient, but it’s not impossible.  Loving our enemies?  That seems impossible.

Most weekdays, I am in one, two, or three Roanoke City or County public schools.  It trains elementary children to prevent child abuse, or recognize and interrupt it if it’s happening to them.  Last Saturday, I represented my organization, Children’s Trust, at a local family Expo, where I loved hearing from children, “Hey, I saw you at my school!”

The best comment was from one of their moms, when she said that her daughter came home excited and told her all about what she learned!  The more we talk publicly about abuse, the more children feel able to speak up when it happens to them.

There were a couple of sad stories, too, though, like one mom who said, “Yeah, my kids have been through that.  Their dad’s locked up now, though.”

Then there was the 4th grader who stopped by once with an adult, and picked up a pinwheel, which is the symbol for child abuse prevention.  Maybe an hour later, she was still there and came back while her adult was talking at a nearby table for foster parents. I was attaching the heads of the pinwheels to the stems when she commented, “I’ve been to Children’s Trust.”

“Really?” I said, as she peeked inside a brochure about protecting children from abuse.  She read a few lines, then pushed the top trifold back down and said, “I’ve read enough.  Yep, I’ve read enough.”

She had been to the Children’s Advocacy Center, where my co-workers do forensic interviews with children who may have been abused. She had spent time with our facility dog, a black Labrador whose job it is to respond to emotional cues and comfort kids while they’re being interviewed.  She had visited the Center not on a fun school field trip; she had been there to respond to difficult questions about the trauma someone had unfairly inflicted on her.

That someone is among my set of enemies. I do not know him or her, but cannot like anyone who intentionally hurts a child.

Jesus says nothing about liking our enemies. He may not have liked unjust people either.  But Jesus does tell us to LOVE our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us.  In this way, we may be children of our Father in heaven.

This is not a conditional love, as in, “Only if you accept me, I will love you”; or “If you do what’s right, then I will receive you into my kingdom.”  God blesses with sun and rain those of us who behave and those of us who misbehave; those of us who repent, and those of us who feel no remorse.  If we truly believe every single person is made in God’s image, Jesus tells us to act with love, even toward our enemies.

Does that mean that those who violate us go free? No, but we are called to pray for them.  Douglas Hare says, “Genuine love has no ulterior motive; its purpose is simply to benefit the one loved, regardless of the response” (Matthew/Mark, Interpretation, p 60).  This is uncommon sense, and yet this is the true discipleship to which Jesus calls us:  the pathway to crucifixion.

Is there an enemy who comes to your mind?  A family member? A neighbor? A co-worker?  A church member? Someone from your past that you desperately want to forget?  What would happen if you tried to do what seems impossible and sought to love that enemy?

If that co-worker asked you to do something demeaning, what if you found a way to do more, not out of spite, but because Jesus desires it?  If that church member disrespects you, again, what if you found a way to give that person an extra dose of compassion by finding out something they need and taking it to them?  What if someone has abused you? I can’t tell you what to do there; I only know that many people who were abused as children find freedom when they tell about their abuse and begin to release their bitterness and pain, and work toward forgiving their abuser.

We become able to do such difficult things because we have seen Jesus go the extra mile, turn the other cheek, allow people to take all his clothes, love his enemies and pray for those who persecuted him.  He knew that his reward was not in revenge.  His reward was not in retaliation.  His reward was found only in love.

Matthew Boulton says that “Jesus advises defiance…a deeper defiance directed against the vicious, endless cycle of enemy making.  Do not fight fire with fire, Jesus says; rather fight fire with water, and thereby refuse to take part in the incendiary, all-too-familiar work of injury and domination…. The centerpiece of this teaching is noncooperation with harm in all its forms” (FW Year A Vol 1 p 385).

Instead of Jesus calling us to love only the people who love us, he calls us to be uncommon, to live contrary to the selfish part of our nature.

A 14-year-old I know fits the description of “contrary.”  If it’s 15 degrees outside, he wears shorts anyway.  If it’s obvious he didn’t know something, he says, “I knew that.”  If he’s in his sister’s way and she asks him to move, he responds, “That sounds like a ‘you’ problem.”  Everything is opposite.

So it sometimes seems in God’s kingdom.  We are too used to looking at our enemies through our own eyes, and not through God’s. It is not easy to be disciples of Jesus, but it is good.  In fact, it is perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect.

Listen again to the beginning of the prayer by Michel Quoist:

I would like to rise very high, Lord;
Above my city,
Above the world,
Above time.
I would like to purify my glance and borrow your eyes.