Date: February 19, 2017
Bible Text: Matthew 5:38–48 | Reverend Dr. Katie Snipes Lancaster
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ —Matthew 5:38
Surely this won’t be the first time you’ve heard this text. It contains nuggets of wisdom that are well known in popular culture: ‘turn the other cheek,’ ‘go the extra mile,’ love your enemy.’ It’s the stuff that caused Gandhi to say “an eye for an eye makes the whole world go blind.” It’s a call, not to violence, but to peace. Yet, the wisdom being well known or even widely quoted doesn’t mean we’re any more apt to actually live by it.
It’s a challenging message for a challenging time. So, listen again to this text with open ears and an open heart, wondering what challenge God might be welcoming you into today.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying…“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so 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. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
In confirmation class, we’re right in the middle of what you might call ‘faith statement season.’ Our freshmen are asked to write a faith statement that (1) outlines the story of our common faith, in their own words, (2) asks how they see, know or talk about God in their own lives, and (3) asks how they might hope to live differently because of their faith in God.
I’m pretty sure that all of us should be doing this every year, because it’s not just a challenging task, but an important one—a task that offers us a chance to track how our understanding of God changes and matures, shifts and grows year-to-year. Also, for some of us, it’s true that we don’t really know what we think or believe until we are challenged to write it down or teach it to someone else. So, writing a faith statement brings clarity and it’s own “ah ha” moments. For now, we’re not challenging everyone to write a faith statement every year, though maybe we should, so our freshmen are holding up their end of the bargain and doing an incredible job of living into this challenge of writing their faith statements. As a pastor, meeting with them individually to talk about their faith statements is one of the greatest gifts of the whole year.
One of the things that we are explicit about is that doubt is allowed in faith statements. Maybe that surprises you, given that it’s a faith statement, not a doubt statement, but we find that there’s something authentic and freeing about welcoming doubt. Making room for doubt acknowledges the cycles of faith and doubt that we experience throughout our lives, and advocates for the deepening of faith that emerges out of our seasons of doubt.
Doubt is written into the Psalms, the Gospels, the most profound theological tomes that have survived the centuries, and is indeed integral to faith. Experiencing uncertainty, hesitation or suspicion; acknowledging our own confusion, unease or apprehension; confessing our skepticism, distrust or cynicism about faith offers us another chance to ask ourselves, “well, what then do I believe?”
Admittedly, there’s no room in these faith statements for what I call “lazy doubt”—an unexamined doubt that has a tendency to be cranky, impolite or disrespectful. Instead, I’m interested in the thoughtful, engaged kind of doubt that solicits the “wisdom of uncertainty.”
I’ve now read more than two hundred faith statements at Kenilworth Union Church, and while every statement is unique, there are three common threads tying doubts together: (1) the question of if science and faith are at odds with one another, (2) the question of why there is suffering in God’s world, and (3) the question of why Christians have done violence in Jesus’ name.
Granted, there’s a fourth kind of doubt, too, one that might have to do with having high expectations either about ourselves or about God. The fourth doubt is about experiencing God, or rather, about not having experienced God in some profound way. Maybe this fourth kind of doubt is rooted in showy Hollywood depictions of God speaking in audible voices or with literal signs along the road. Maybe it’s rooted in an expectation (or hope?) that God come to us with fireworks and thunderstorms, or obvious signs and self-evident miracles. Maybe it’s rooted in a busy culture that leaves little room silence or meditation—where God’s whispers or still small voice might be overlooked, ignored or discounted.
I love each of the doubts expressed by our confirmands. All of these kinds of doubt deserve their own sermon series, their own year of study, their own radio program, their own endowed chair at Divinity School. And I’m sure somehow I’m missing some forms of doubt that linger at the edges, named or unnamed. But today, our text from Matthew highlights and underlines, accentuates and gives prominence to one of these tender, important doubts. It begs the question, “why have Christians done violence in Jesus’ name?”
Why have Christians done violence in Jesus’ name when Jesus says, “turn the other cheek?” Why have Christians done violence in Jesus’ name when Jesus says, not just love your neighbor, but “love your enemy?” Why have Christians done violence in Jesus’ name when Jesus says, “do not react violently?” Why the crusades? Why the holy wars? Why manifest destiny? Why lynching and cross burnings? Why Waco, Texas or Jim Jones?
A friend of mine went to Cape Coast Castle in Ghana—maybe you’ve been there. He talked passionately about his experience there. In the height of the slave trade, Cape Coast Castle was a gathering place for slave traders seeking to buy slaves. Upstairs was a place for slave traders to do business, make deals, and negotiate. Downstairs were dark damp stone holding cells, often crammed full of slaves ready to be loaded onto ships ready to make the long voyage maybe first to Liverpool where so many trade ships came to port, then across the ocean to the New World.
On the top floor of Cape Coast Castle in Ghana is a church; a small bright chapel used by slave traders on Sunday mornings. If you sing a hymn in that bright sunny chapel, you can hear the singing down in the dark damp stone holding cells. My friend could hardly stomach standing in that chapel, imagining people worshiping the God who says, “turn the other cheek” and love not just your neighbor but also your enemies.
How could these Christians profess Christ on Sunday morning, and on Monday morning ship out with hundreds of slaves crowded into the hull? We can ask the same question about the churches in Nazi Germany that supported the Nazi regime, or the churches in South Africa that supported Apartheid, or the streams of Christian identity in the United States that supported cross burning and lynching. Why have Christians done violence in Jesus’ name?
When Jesus says, “you have heard it said…” he’s not just referring to some sayings that are floating about in the cultural ether. He’s referring to things written in our sacred texts. The phrase, “an eye for an eye” is found in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. It’s not some obscure phrase, it’s repeated often as part of the biblical legal code. So, maybe the answer to the question “why have Christians done violence in Jesus’ name?” has something to do with the bible playing host to violent ways of life.
As a side note, our IMPACT High School Mission Trip theme this year is Peace and Violence, and we are going to explore this very thing—not just what peace and violence are like in our own lives, in our own communities, in our own nation and world, but also asking “does God call us to peace?” and “what does that peace look like?” and “what violent texts have been used to justify violent acts in Jesus’ name?” and “how do we approach scripture, knowing that it does play host to such violence?” I can’t promise we’ll figure it all out, but ask us in a few months if we at least feel more wise and more prepared to wonder about such questions.
In Matthew, Jesus offers a new interpretation, “you have heard it said… an eye for an eye… but I say unto you “do not react violently to the one who does evil against you.” Jesus has a hermeneutic of love; a lens of love; a way by which all scripture or ethic or way of living must go through the machine called love, before it can be called “good.”
Jesus’ lens of love is what we affirm here at Kenilworth Union Church. It’s what we mean when we sing “Jesus loves me” at an early age, or when we teach the lullaby “God loves me so” to our preschoolers on Friday mornings.
The logic of God’s love helps us to stand against or stand up to those who might seek to do violence in Jesus’ name. The logic of God’s love allows us to even consider the possibility of trying to live into Jesus’ message to love our enemies.
Not that any of us can call ourselves perfect. Maybe we don’t literally practice “an eye for an eye,” but maybe there are days when we wish we could—when the hurt we feel is so isolating and agonizing that we wish the person who hurt us could feel just an inkling of what we feel. Maybe we wish we could turn the other cheek, but don’t. Maybe we think for a moment about going the extra mile, going beyond what is asked of us, but then we turn again to legalistic appeals to only have to do what the contract says, and nothing more.
None of us are perfect. None of us, even on our best days, live fully into this logic of love that Jesus calls us toward. None of us fully see the world through Jesus’ lens of love, even when we spend a lifetime trying. But surprisingly, shockingly, insanely, this passage ends with a challenge to do just that: be perfect. Be perfect, just as God is perfect. Yikes.
Can we? Can we be perfect? Maybe some days we think we can be perfect. Maybe some days we hope we can be perfect. Maybe some days we know we will certainly fail at being perfect. One scholar challenged preachers to look back at the original Greek here. Maybe to get us off the hook with Jesus’ challenge to be perfect. Maybe to be realistic and kind, even loving, about what this passage might be offering us.
The original Greek word here is Telos. “The Greek word Telos implies less of a moral perfection than it does of reaching one’s intended outcome.” Telos means the goal or purpose. A bee’s Telos is to find nectar and return it to the hive to nourish the colony and to make enough honey to survive the winter. An apple tree’s Telos is to produce apples. A violin’s Telos is to make sound, maybe even to make music.
Telos is about being what you are created to be. Telos is about reaching the end goal, or doing the thing for which you have been made. And, so, an alternative translation of this final piece of the text might be:
“Be the person and community God created you to be, just as God is the One God is supposed to be.” Telos is a process of becoming. It is the lifelong hard work of living into what God created you to do.
The perfection, the Telos, to which God calls you is not a here-and-now do-it-or-else kind of perfection at which you most certainly will fail, but instead, it is a long journey toward transformation, which surely will have ups and downs, setbacks and successes, but which absolutely is possible.
Our preschool director, Jill Witt, this week offered some preschool-sized wisdom which, not surprisingly is equally applicable to adults. When a child is struggling to get her coat on, or having trouble figuring out how to walk as part of the line down the hallway, or is still not able to put the caps back on the markers, or is frustrated because he’s always the last one out of the classroom because it takes him so, so, so, very long to zip up his winter coat—and the child says “I can’t, I can’t do it”—help the child see that he just can’t do it yet. She just can’t zip her coat yet. He just can’t get the cap on the marker yet. She just can’t figure out the mystery of getting all her fingers into her gloves yet. One day, it will be an easy task, hardly thought about, done well because of years of practice. But now, the child is living in the “not yet” of life.
“Not yet” is the grace of Telos. The perfection of Telos does not call the honeybee to have all the nectar all the time. The perfection of Telos does not call the violin to make sound, to make music all the time. The perfection of Telos does not call the apple to produce fruit all the time. Instead, within Telos is the grace of “not yet.”
We are “not yet” living into Jesus’ call to love our enemies. We are “not yet” living into Jesus’ call to turn the other cheek. But, we hear the call, and we practice.
We see the logic of Jesus’ love, we see Christ’s lens of love, and we practice loving our enemy. We don’t get it right every time. But every morning we are offered a chance to begin again, to love again, to try again to live into the logic of love to which Jesus calls us.
Be perfect, Jesus says. Be Telos, Jesus says. “Be the person and community God created you to be,” Jesus says. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.
 Scholars Translation of the Bible, Walter Wink Jesus and Non Violence, 2003, p. 11.