Living in the Grey Sermon Series #7
Is Jesus Weak?
Pastor Leta Arndt Behrens
Scripture Sermon: MATTHEW 5:38-48[Jesus said to the disciples:] 38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and 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.
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; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Read here (remembering a sermon is the preached word and this is an approximation! )
We teach our children from their beginnings about the strength of Jesus in the familiar song, “Jesus Loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong, we are weak, but he is strong.” Right there for the youngest of minds to absorb into their hearts we say, the love of Jesus is the strength of Jesus.
And then their little eyes start to grow and become our adult eyes and we may pause and say, wait, really? Because what I see in our world is a kind of love that is lifted up on candy hearts and fleeting emotions. I see that power, strength and might come from staking a claim in what is mine, standing up for myself or my territory or my country. Strength means winning, being in control, and relying on no one else. Those who are pacifists are often seen as weak or afraid and the lines of justice are much more clear when, well, when there are lines, or circles or walls. If these things are true—then Jesus seems quite weak asking me to turn the other cheek, love my enemies, pray for those who are hurting me or ones I love.
And this is exactly where Jesus turns things around and shows that these very ways of seeing love and power are in fact the ways that we are weak. When we circle the wagons or build walls or stake our claim drawing a line or a box or square or a triangle in the sand, what is the real motivation behind that? It’s fear. Fear drives us to make sure we take care of ourselves, fears drives us to keep others away, fear drives us to do all kinds of things that come across as a show of power and might.
The Love that Jesus brings and seeks for us to live into does not come from a place of fear. Instead, Jesus negates our impulses of competitiveness and self centeredness and brings to light the reality of love being a power. I listened to an interview of two buddhist meditation teachers on the podcast “onbeing” and they spoke of this concept as being from Jesus and also a part of their practice and understanding of fierce compassion or tough love. Love is not about saying, you can walk all over me or I am just going to passively let things happen as they will and then try to paint pretty hearts around it, but love claims it’s power and says I want what is best for you and I will not allow you take away what is at my center. I will hold you accountable but from a place that honors you as another beloved of God while honoring myself in the same way. This kind of love comes from a place of openness and security, a place of strength, a place of power. Martin Luther King Jr has been quoted many times as saying, Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can drive out hate and this quote comes from the practices of mindfulness and fierce compassion that are present in Christian and other religions spiritual practices.
This kind of love is certainly not made of sugary candy hearts of fluffy, fleeting emotions. This kind of love is difficult. It takes practice, it takes being present and open and mindful and attentive not just to others but to our own inner thoughts and feelings before they come flying out of us. The buddhist teachers also talked about there being a middle space—that it can be pretty tough to jump from hate to love so maybe, they suggest, hang out in ‘not hate’ for awhile, at the very least perhaps not hating your enemy and praying for good things for them will keep them busy enough to not bother you!
This kind of love knows that loving the enemy—whether the enemy is an outer one like a big scary villain or that annoying neighbor or coworker or fellow student or an inner one; the kind that won’t give you peace or rest—is not for the ways of the weak and cannot start from a place of fear. But instead sets on a course of striving for the perfection that is present in God’s love. In greek this ‘perfect’ word is telos. Which does not mean moral perfection, but more of a striving for an intended outcome. Rev. David Lose gives a good example when he says, The telos of an arrow shot by an archer is to reach its target. The telos of a peach tree is to yield peaches. Which means that we might translate this passage more loosely to mean, “Be the person and community God created you to be, just as God is the One God is supposed to be.” (davidlose.net)
When we can read the scripture this way, we can see that Jesus’ words are more of promise than command and they are held together. Jesus does see more in us than we see in ourselves and Jesus is asking us for more than we think we can do, and it probably is more than we can do especially on a bad day, love enemies, turn a cheek, pray for those who are causing harm, act in ways of forgiveness even when we don’t feel it? Pretty tough yes. But the promise is still there because even as we are asked to participate in this way in what Jesus calls the kingdom of God, we are not the ones who bring in the kingdom of God. That is Jesus’ job, we are not asked to do what only God can do. We are asked to strive for the intended goal—strive for mercy, justice, love and grace.
In our adult education discussion last week on the law, I know sounds super exciting, but really was a wonderful, insightful discussion into how we navigate living together in ways of justice, one woman talked about mercy and justice being held together. She explained, that when we are wronged, we want justice and when we are the one that did the wrong, we seek out mercy. And Jesus is switching that up, he is saying that when we are the ones who do wrong we should be concerned with justice, with making it as right as we can. And when we are the ones who are wronged, we should seek to find a way to be merciful. I think she is right, that justice an mercy are held together and even flipped over by Jesus telling us that we can see things from another angle and we can live out God’s love for the world in ways that hold these two opposites together with the thread of grace that goes inbetween.
Here is a simple story that happened two weeks ago in a congregation in Denver where that thread of grace was able to be woven in-between people of very different lives. A pastor friend of mine was receiving new members and had just finished the words of baptism for one of them. Then she turned and invited the rest of those joining forward. Throughout the service, a man had been sitting in back, he visually stood out as being new and being someone that had not been with them before—he was rough looking, unshowered, and well not a white person in a room pretty much exclusively of a light skin tone. He heard the words of the baptism and the invitation to come forward and he took it wholeheartedly. Stepped up to the front and announced that he would like his name added to the list. It was surprising and out of order in some ways but he was received and welcomed in as a member of the community. After worship many people surrounded him and brought him coffee and donut and heard him tell his story. It did turn out that he was running. He had stolen a car and caused issues with a girlfriend and yet, people hung in and listened and were open to his telling of his current place in life. Through the conversation he said, “I need to turn myself in, don’t I?” And he was told yes, he did, but that he would not be alone. That he would be helped, that he would be visited in jail and that the promises they had just made to him would remain in tact as he belonged to them now. Mercy and justice. Held together by the people of God in an awkward, surprising, not planned for moment where love showed up and guided the way.
This is the strength of love. Where forgiveness is not left alone as a certain feeling to attain and where love is not left alone without words and action to keep it’s promises. Where instead, both are held as the way to strive for, the way to live into and the way that takes courage and strength and persistence. So this means we take a deep breath and pick up that rock in sacred space and pray for someone with whom you struggle and let God do the rest. It means we create space in our minds and hearts to counter hate with love; It means that our love, our prayer, our trust in Jesus is our strength and so we can continue to sing with confidence, “Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong. We are weak, but God’s love is forever strong.”