But I Say to You…

by Rev. Scott Summerville

Matthew 5:38-48

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.

When I was a much younger pastor, the congregation I was serving hired a seminary intern. He was a great guy. He was creative, positive and smart. He had not yet been ground to dust by long years as a parish pastor. The chairperson of the personnel committee was at that time well into her 80s. She had never married. She was an extremely proper lady, and truly one of the most delightful characters I have ever known. But, I emphasize, she was a very proper lady.

After the seminarian – I shall call him Pete – had been serving our church for several months, I called her for an official conversation. I told her that I was very pleased with Pete’s contribution to the church, and I wished to hear her impressions of his effectiveness. There was a pause. Then she said: “He can put his slippers under my bed any day.” Needless to say, I did not put that in my report.

This seminarian – this kid just starting out – taught me something, something important. At that time I was scrupulous about wanting everything to be perfect. I was particularly self-conscious about worship. Anything to do with the worship service – anything to do with a sermon – had to be just so. If I lost my train of thought or did something out of order in the worship service, I would be panic stricken and humiliated. As you can see, I have long since outgrown that particular obsession. Some say I have no standards at all! But back then I had standards! Nothing less than perfection was allowed!

One day Pete took a turn at leading the worship service. While he was preaching, the pages of his sermon got mixed up; he fumbled for a few moments. My heart was pounding – not so much that I was critical of him – it’s just that I was so fearful of mistakes of any sort. Pete did not panic. He got his papers in order and got back on track. As he resumed his message, he said, “We all make mistakes; that’s why there are erasers on pencils.” Isn’t it funny how some little moment, even the repetition of some corny phrase, can be transforming?

I am probably the only living soul who even remembers that minor event – but that insignificant event was a transforming moment for me. This younger person’s ability to remain relaxed and composed and not to become self-critical while making a mistake in public – this was a beam of light exposing my own neurotic perfectionism.

I was very grateful to him for that. Truth be told, I also resented him for being wiser than I was. But still I was grateful. If you cannot make mistakes – if you cannot, can not, must not – no never – make mistakes, you are disabled.

This is what makes the Sermon on the Mount so puzzling. It truly is a very puzzling message that Jesus delivers. His words remind me of koans – those unsolvable riddles in Zen Buddhism. In case you are not familiar with koans, allow me to explain. In the tradition of Buddhism known as Zen, one of the paths to enlightenment is to focus the mind totally on a riddle. These riddles are called koans.

In some cases an individual will have a single riddle to ponder for their entire lifetime. In other traditions the students are given a series of koans. The most famous is: “Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?”

I especially like this koan:

“ A monk saw a turtle in the garden of Daizui’s monastery and asked the teacher, ‘All beings cover their bones with flesh and skin. Why does this being cover its flesh and skin with bones?’ Master Daizui took off one of his sandals and covered the turtle with it.”

That’s a good one, eh?

In the Zen tradition you break through the normal processes of your brain by spending years pondering such phrases and stories that o not make rational sense – they “do not compute.” There are times when things Jesus says “do not compute.” His words seem like impossible riddles.
Consider the words we heard today. (I will read these words slowly; each time I pause, ask yourself: “Am I able to do this?”):

“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….

[well???]

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.

[hmmm… pretty cold out there…]

Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

[will a single do?…]

“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 Gentiles do the same?

[Is this for real? I mean, seriously?]

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

[O stop!!]

I would rather try to figure out “what is the sound of one hand?” than attempt to fulfill all that is asked of us in the Sermon on the Mount. Some of us have particular trouble with that part about perfection. It has taken us many years to grow out of the neurotic need to be perfect; we do not care to be dragged back to that place.

Who could possibly do all these things that Jesus demands? Such giving, such forgiving, such total selflessness – such perfection!

There are times when we should approach the Bible the way you would approach a large piece of very delicious, very expensive cheese or two gallons of your favorite ice cream. It is not a good idea to consume it all at once. Sometimes we need to allow the Word to hit us – challenge us – even overwhelm our comprehension – and then ask: What does this stimulate in me? What arises in me as I hear these words? What comes to me?

When Jesus says: forget about revenge; forget about getting even – what comes?When Jesus says: give, give, and give without limit – what comes?When Jesus says: love your enemies – what comes?When Jesus says: be perfect as God is perfect – what comes?

Maybe nothing comes. Or maybe one of those questions opens a door – opens up some place that needs to be explored, some challenge that needs to be heard.

As we were preparing to recite A Covenant of Conscience earlier in our worship, I mentioned that a letter was published this week by one of the organizations in our annual conference, the Wesley Fellowship. The letter includes these statements:

“The actions of these errant clergy who have conducted same-sex weddings have confused and deeply troubled many persons within our conference. We cannot and will not remain silent in the face of these acts of disobedience. Wesley Fellowship is committed to following the Discipline and will hold those who have performed these same-sex weddings accountable for their actions. Moreover, we encourage any lay and clergy persons to place a formal complaint against any of the clergy who have performed these ceremonies. Letters of complaint can be sent to Bishop Martin D. McLee.”

“In conclusion, we applaud the fact that the United Methodist Church is open to all people; we are all sinners standing in the need of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Yet, we cannot celebrate and bless what the Scriptures and the tradition of the Church have forbidden.”

“—Submitted by Rev. Philip Hardt, for the Wesley Fellowship”

Phil is a colleague of mine with whom I have had a warm and cordial relationship for many years. In fact he has preached from this pulpit a number of times. His letter and the threats contained in it are directed to me and many other clergy who have publicly shared stories of performing same-sex ceremonies.

I read his letter the same day I read the gospel lesson for this week containing the words of Jesus about loving our enemies. It is an odd thing to read a public letter written by someone I know well and have no animosity toward and who is a most kind individual on a personal level, but who believes that I and many of my colleagues should be“accountable” – defrocked for performing marriages, and who also believes that our faithful gay and lesbian clergy should live in the secrecy of the closet or leave our denomination, willingly or by trial, conviction, and expulsion.

I do not regard any member of the Wesley Fellowship as an enemy, and I have no reason to think that any member of the Wesley Fellowship views me or other members of our movement as enemies. That is a good thing. It is good that we can have profound differences yet see one another as friends and colleagues.

The thing I struggle with is not that they are encouraging punitive actions against me personally. I am not injured by this. What I struggle with is my knowledge of people who have been and are being injured by ignorance and prejudice regarding human sexuality. This is not an abstraction. These are children rejected by their parents. These are homeless youth. These are young people taking their own lives because they are so tormented by rejection. These are seminarians wondering whether they will be able to stay in the church they love and be who they are. These are human beings labeled and rejected on the basis of their sexual orientation. Often abused. And sometimes killed.

This particular letter was written by the Wesley Fellowship at the very time that reports were coming from various parts of the world of gays being imprisoned, attacked by mobs, labeled and treated as less than human. And who is “accountable” for all these injuries, all this suffering, all this needless pain?

I have no personal enmity toward the members of the Wesley Fellowship. I imagine, as well, that many individuals in the Wesley Fellowship are wrestling with these issues privately and do not share the enthusiasm of those who are bringing charges against clergy and advising others to do the same. At the same time, one must speak the truth in love, and in that spirit I assert that the kind of biblical interpretation, the kind of doctrinal assertions, and the kind of policies that are being advocated by the Wesley Fellowship with regard to GLBTQ persons and their friends and families and allies are causing great harm.

I believe that in time the awareness of that harm will bring about a change of heart in the otherwise loving hearts of those who speak for the Wesley Fellowship. We are not enemies, but in this we certainly are not allies.

The Bible is not a book that any of us can claim to understand or grasp in its entirety. How many of us can claim to understand fully and be faithful fully even to a single one of the challenges Jesus levels in the Sermon on the Mount? I cannot.

We need a living, breathing, interactive approach to the Scriptures, or they become lifeless. Words of Scripture even may become weapons with which we cause harm, rather than being the Word of Life.

That is how these ancient words fall upon my ears ad upon my heart this day.

Shalom.

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