Sermons : Living the Faith: Old Virtues for a New Age- Love
1 John 1:7-21; Matthew 5:38-48
University Presbyterian Church
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
August 12, 2012
(Sermons are often fluid documents, rarely delivered as precisely as they are written.
In this case, the sermon went through some revision following the early service,
and the text below resembles more closely what was spoken at the later service.)
I'm not sure how many of you read The Onion. It's a dependable, if sometimes irreverent voice of satire in America. If you read it regularly, you might have seen a brief, but encouraging piece of news in their online edition this week. The Onion reported the following:
A study released Thursday by researchers at Harvard University's Department of Psychology has found that the simple act of pretending one's life is not a complete shambles threatening to collapse at any moment works. "Even when everything is coming apart at the seams and disaster is almost certainly imminent, putting up a good front for friends and loved ones makes everything better," said Professor Christine Wanamaker, who explained that smiling a lot and evasive answers were usually enough to get by. "Tell everyone that things are fine, and they will be fine. Just don't over-think it." When asked about her study's methodology, Wanamaker said the research was rock-solid, had been looked over by a bunch of scientists, and definitely wasn't anything to worry about.
Well, maybe she's right. Maybe pretending everything is okay works on the self-esteem side. Maybe. But I have to tell you, I've tried it for several days now in assessing the national news and...well, not so much. Putting up a good front hasn't made much of a difference. Oh, the Olympics have provided a nice escape for the most part, but come back across the Pond to the national news of recent days, and it's just hard to smile a lot and pretend that things are really fine.
There were the shootings last Sunday at a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, apparently by someone immersed in the hate music of the white supremacist movement. Those shootings came just a couple of weeks after that murderous rampage by a lone gunman at the theater in suburban Denver. Between those two violent episodes there was the angry invective aimed at opposing camps over a political contribution made by the CEO of a prominent fast food chain, which was only a brief distraction from the angry, hate-filled invective being lobbed by both political parties during this election season. Occasionally, one hears a political speech or a political ad that doesn't further enflame an already enflamed electorate, but they are too few and too far between. In America, it seems that we've stopped talking with one another and have taken simply to shouting at one another. We are angry. We are suspicious. We are distrustful. And we only want to surround ourselves with people who think as we do. We are in a mess.
This week I tried the advice of the fictitious researcher who said, "Even when everything is coming apart at the seams.... putting up a good front ... makes everything better." But it doesn't. It really doesn't. I'm telling you, the culture wars have to stop if we are going to survive as a society, as a nation and as a people in these demanding times. We need some leaders with a long view and a determination born of a commitment to sacrifice together for the common good if we are to preserve a country worth handing over to our children and grandchildren.
The church has long since lost its voice in such matters, in part because in so many places the church is increasingly part of the problem rather than the broker of a solution. I have no illusions that you and I can make much of a difference in the struggles that threaten to tear our nation asunder. But we can draw a different kind of line in the sand. We can begin here today to draw that line. And the line I'm thinking of is a line of mutual respect and of mutual love that we can agree not to cross in the months ahead. It's a line that will help us to claim the truth that what binds us together is much stronger than what divides us. It's a line that says our bonds in Christ are not subject to differing political perspectives and diverging social values.
I'm not proposing such a line because this church is imperiled in the current culture wars. I don't believe it is at all. But precisely because this church has a positive bearing in a prevailing climate of negativity, it is my hope that we can be a voice of reason and faith and love, a positive witness to the larger community and world. God knows we need such witnesses in our time.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke about misplaced trust. He spoke of the teachings of conventional wisdom, and he called his followers to a higher wisdom rooted in the reign of God. In this morning's text from that Sermon, Jesus talks first about power. "In a society based on raw power, the one with the strongest fists or the most guns [or one might add, the most advertising money] wins. Instead of the Golden Rule, the ethic in such a world is ‘Do unto others first before they do unto you,' or, at least, ‘If they do anything bad to you at all, finish them off before they do anything worse.'" As Tom Long points out,
In such a "survival of the fittest" environment, the Law of Moses [had been] a mitigating, moderating force. "No," it said, don't retaliate against other people with every ounce of destruction you can muster. Let the offense be measured by the offense: an eye for an eye, and only an eye; a tooth for a tooth, but only a tooth." Thus, the Old Testament law set human society on a trajectory of moderation and restraint, and, now, Jesus brings that curve to its logical destination: "Do not resist an evildoer at all...."
It boggles the mind to think about living out this example literally in contemporary society....[But Jesus is serious here; and there are two ways in which his counsel makes sense.] First, [he] provides something of a strategy for robbing violent and oppressive people of their cruel power. If [an angry person confronts another person with violence or hateful invective and the second person responds in kind, then the first person has won, for he has established violence and hatred] as the agenda. But, what if the man [on the receiving end of the hatred or violence] should stand there firmly and thrust forward the other cheek, as if to say, "You may like violence [or hateful speech] but you are not in total control. I choose another way"? The turning of the other cheek discloses that cruel people may do violence [or project hatred], but they do not have the power to take away the dignity and humanity of other people.
That leads to the second way to understand Jesus' word - as good news that in God's new creation there will be no violence, [no hate speech or hate music, no cruelty at all]. No one will resist a neighbor because no one will need to do so. This is the way it will be in the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus then takes the logic a step further.
"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....
Love your enemy. Love those who disagree with you. Love those who hurl invective at you. Love those who despise you for the company you keep. Love them. The heart of the matter, as Jesus interpreted it, was in this command to love radically. Why? Because God is like this, and we are God's children. If we separate ourselves into enclaves of the like-minded, we are simply imitating the world rather than imitating God. Jesus' sermon here is "a portrait of the very heart of God, one who loves the unlovable, comes among us in Christ, suffers our worst, and rises to forgive us. Turn the cheek, give the cloak, go another mile, lend, love the enemy - because that is how God loves."
The last virtue may seem the hardest, but it is not impossible. Duke Divinity School's Jason Byassee says well, "If you want to follow [the God who was] fleshed in Jesus, you will be adopted into a life in which you find yourself loving this way before you know what you are doing." If you find yourself within a genuine community of Christ, it is inevitable. And how will you know such authenticity? Christ's genuine community is known by the love it not only professes but shows, by its wide embrace of neighbors and non-neighbors alike, by the care it takes to be sure that it acts always in love. Love is always its aim.
I share with you a reflection of what happens when the primacy of love is forgotten, one that I want to share carefully, lest I be misunderstood. The Wednesday before last thousands of people all across the country lined up to support "Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day." "Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day" emerged out of the culture wars. I'm reasonably confident that in this room we have more than one opinion about that event, and what I am going to say next may seem as though I am championing one side. I would rather we think of it as an invitation to conversation. Now, what makes "Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day" salient for our consideration today is that the large majority of those who actively participated in the observance were Christians, many of them evangelical Christians, people who seek to love God, put their trust in Jesus Christ, and want all people to have the opportunity to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ.
By all outward measures "Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day" was an unqualified success. But I want to suggest that by the standards of the Sermon on the Mount, it failed to measure up. The Christian writer and lecturer Matthew Paul Turner said it more forcefully. He said the Christian Church failed miserably that day in several ways.
[First, he said, of the] campaign, while [it shouldn't] be considered or called "hate," neither can it be called love. Christians all over America ignored [the command to love.] Call [the exercise] what you want - freedom of speech, a rally behind "family values," a sincere fascination with CFA's brand of fried poultry...but it cannot be called love. It was not love.
[Second,] people felt hate, and [the church] ignored that. At the end of the day, regardless of whether or not your Christian understanding of scripture harbors hate ..., a large group of people felt hated. Again [Turner said,] we can debate [the intent] all day long, but that does not change the fact that people felt hatred because of what happened.... Whether or not hate actually existed is not the point; people felt hated. And rather than acknowledging those feelings or trying to understand or engage them in any way, Christians everywhere marched off to their local Chick-Fil-A like it was a cross to bear, a necessity, a battle cry of some sort, the waffle fry's last stand.
[Third, said Turner], by rallying behind Chick-Fil-A, Christians put an issue above people. And it's impossible to follow Jesus when issues trump people....We can't embrace love, mercy, hope and peace when our causes trump people.
.... Nobody is surprised that the CEO of Chick-Fil-A is against gay marriage [and he has every right to say so and to put his money behind such a cause, if that is what he believes. But] once in a while our culture needs to be surprised by how much [the Church] loves people - all people.
I share Turner's words with you today because I find in them a helpful, if discomforting reminder of the centrality of love in Christian life and in the life of the Christian community. Everything we say or do is measured against the teachings and ministry of Jesus Christ. Every virtue we try to embody is measured against the life and virtue of Jesus. And when we are driven by anything other than love, by that measurement, we fall short.
My friend Donovan Drake is a pastor in Tennessee, but he used to serve the Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church over in Durham. A few years ago, I heard him tell a story that moved me deeply, because I had had a similar experience. He told of being invited to visit a high-security prison for youth offenders with a group of Christian men who visited there regularly...and of his nervousness as he entered "through the buzzers, the gates and the security wands" and was led into a cafeteria, with tables and chairs, with prisoners in orange uniforms.
"What's next?" I asked. It was then I learned I was flying solo. [Our leader] said, "Well, find a table, introduce yourself, read a scripture, talk about it, pray with them."
Well, that seemed simple enough - introduce, scripture, talk, pray. I was nervous, but I can do this. Introduce, scripture, talk, pray. I can do this.
I scanned the room to find what I thought to be the least intimidating young man in the room, and my eyes fell on one who could easily have been the youngest one in the room, boyish face, hair parted neatly, round glasses, intelligent looking. I went to him. I sat down at his table and introduced myself.
"My name is Donovan, what's yours?" "Michael," he said. I told him I was a visitor to the program and a bit nervous. He didn't say anything to me, which made me more nervous, and then he said, "It's my first time down here, too."
"Can I ask why you' re in here?" I said, figuring he would tell some story of a car stolen or maybe a drug trade. He didn't. He didn't even look at me when he said, "I killed my father." I was stunned. I probably even had a look on my face that said, "Man, you should be in prison." I mean I was stunned. I couldn't believe it. I still can't believe it. I stammered out some attempt to understand.
"Was your father abusive?" I said.
"I don't want to talk about it," he said.
I sat in silence for a second or a minute, and then he lifted a finger from the table and pointed it directly at my Bible and asked, "Is there anything in there that can help me?"
I think that's the question everyone wants answered. Only perhaps we would ask, "Is there anything in there that can help us?" Well, I've been looking for a long time to try to find an answer...and here's what I've found. Turn the other cheek, Jesus said; give the cloak, go the extra mile, lend, love the enemy - because that is how God loves. Love. Now, there's a line to draw in the sand. Let's pledge today that we're not going to cross the line that ever keeps us from loving others. All the other virtues? They come from that one.
If such love were to take hold of us, there's no telling what kind of difference we might actually make in these days of the culture wars. At the very least, it might make a big difference in us.
 Thomas G. Long, Matthew: Westminster Bible Companion, Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1997, 62.
 Long, 62-63.
 Long, 64.
 Jason Byassee, "Matthew 5:38-48: Theological Perspective," Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, 382.
 Byassee, 382.
 http://matthewpaulturner.net/f1/5-reasons-why-the-church-failed-yesterday/, accessed August 2, 2012.