Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
It’s a story that is repeated on every elementary school playground, nearly every day in our country. Two fourth-graders get into it during recess; something about “he did this, so I did that” and it kind of goes south from there. When they get back to class, Billy trips Joey. After lunch, Joey breaks Billy’s pencil on purpose. When nobody is looking, Billy writes on Joey’s desk, and later, Joey steals Billy’s folder. After school, Billy and his friends face Joey and his friends, and they call each other names. Somebody gets hurt. Somebody else gets hurt worse. And then there is no telling when or if these conflicts will every end.
Sound familiar? We have all experienced this sort of escalating pettiness and we readily admit that it is silly. But I would suggest to you that we can remove the names “Billy” and “Joey” and insert that words “husband” and “wife” and the story is much the same. Or we could insert the names of two rival high schools, or two rival companies, or “The Hatfields” and “The McCoys.” Or Republicans and Democrats, or “pro-life” and “pro-choice,” or Israel and Palestine, or America and Iraq. Conflict at any level is conflict. And if not preventable, most conflict is at least resolvable…but not until one side refuses to retaliate and instead decides to reconcile.
But to do that, one side must stop the retaliation. To end the warring, one side must be willing to say “no more! That’s enough!” And it’s a risk. Billy might take another punch. A spouse might hurl another insult. Nations might lob another bomb…and then another…and then another.
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Last week, Pastor Keith told you that our preaching focus for the coming year would be the only sermon that Jesus preached; the Sermon on the Mount. It’s filled with some beautiful passages that comfort and encourage us; The Beatitudes, for example, The Lord’s Prayer, and Christ’s invitation to seek, knock and ask. But Jesus’ words also contain some harsh commands, some seemingly impossible expectations. “Don’t hate your enemies, love them” he said. “Don’t judge people.” “Your anger is just as serious as murder.”
Jesus had to have known that just about everything he would say would contradict the status quo. And that is no more true than in the words that stand before us today.
You have heard it said “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
But I say to you “Do not resist an evil-doer.”
If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;
if anyone wants to take your coat, give him your over coat.
If any of Caesar’s guards require you to carry a load,
carry it farther than they ask.
And if someone asks you for a loan, make it a gift.
How radical are Jesus’ words? Extremely. In the Old Testament, the law of the land was equal retaliation. If someone took your cow, you could rightfully take his lamb. If your fence was broken by your adversary, you didn’t ask him to repair it, you simply broke his fence. If a neighbor boy threw a rock and took out your child’s tooth, you were obligated to knock the other kid’s tooth out. That was the legal system. That was defined justice.
It’s a curious statement, “If anyone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other also.” In that day, if someone wanted to insult another person, he would use the back of his hand (like this). If the offended person showed any reaction, the next blow came with the palm or the fist. Turning the other cheek sent the message that the offended person would not be fighting back.
When Jesus said these words it must have stunned his hearers. “What do you mean, Jesus? Are we just supposed to take it? Just let people hit us, and boss us, and steal from us?” And the radical implication of Jesus’ words is “yes.”
And it is just as radical today. Seldom do we see anyone turn the other cheek in this competitive, conflicted world of ours. Road rage is a 21st century example of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Gangs and violence go hand in hand, and when one brother is killed in a drive-by shooting, there is certain to be revenge the next night. In the political season that stands before us, we will watch the ads of candidates become increasingly nasty and uncivil. When marriages end, the feuding spouses will stop at nothing so they can feel vindicated and victorious in divorce courts.
Of course, the most visible of all examples of retaliation are found not far from where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. The conflict between Israel and Palestine has been boiling for centuries, and it erupted again this past summer. Two Lebanese soldiers were killed, so this prompted Lebanon to take two Israel soldiers hostage. Israel bombed Lebanon, so Lebanon bombed Israel. Twelve Jews were killed, so Israel responded and killed 23 Lebanese. And on and on it escalates.
Tell me, do we like it like this? Do we relish being in conflict with neighbors, or spouses, or nations or adversaries? Do we enjoy the bickering and fighting? I expect we would say, no, we don’t really like it. Then why do we do it?!!? Why do we continue to fight and attack and insult and avenge? “Because he hit me first. Because she started it. Because it’s their fault.”
When we look at the fractured condition of our world, we should not be stunned by Jesus’ words of non-violence, we should be amazed that he warned us and we never listened. If just once, someone would stand up and say “Enough! No more fighting!” perhaps then the cycle would end, and peace would evolve. But we don’t know, because no nation, no neighbor, no politician, no Billy or Joey has ever had the courage to say “no more.”
Until now. Until us. If we walk out of here this morning and we return to our same patterns of revenge and retribution and retaliation, then we have intentionally chosen to ignore the words of Jesus. If we insist on our pound of flesh, if we demand an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, we have announced to the world that Christians can pick and choose what words of Jesus we want to follow.
Pastor Gordon MacDonald has said this:
“The world can do almost anything
as well or better than the church.
You need not be a Christians to build houses,
feed the hungry, or heal the sick.
There is only one thing the world cannot do.
It cannot offer grace.”
Imagine how the world would be if just the Christians stopped fighting. Think for a minute what our neighborhoods would look like, or our churches, or our families, or our political arenas, if the followers of Christ turned the other cheek whenever possible. What if two billion Christians became convinced that Jesus’ call to love and kindness and grace, and began to live our lives that way? The world would be changed.
But it doesn’t start with 2 billion. It starts with one. When you go to Target after worship, maybe you’ll let someone have that primo parking space, even though you got there first. When your neighbor’s dog does a number on your lawn, you don’t pick it up and put it on his doorstep; you just pick it up. When your employer tells you that you are no longer needed at the company, you swallow hard and say “Thank you for the privilege of working here.” And when your Joey is punched by their Billy, you don’t call your lawyer. You call Billy’s dad and say “Let’s take the boys to a Twins game so we can have them become friends, not enemies.”
If we belong to the God of Grace, we must become people of grace. There’s no other way. And someday, somewhere, someone will be explaining how it is that the neighborhood lives at peace, and they will point to you and say “He started it.” Be a people of grace today! Thanks be to God. Amen.