Monday, February 20, 2017

"And Now for Your Reward" - Sermon, February 19, 2017

Community UMC, Quincy
“The Great Invitation: And Now for Your Reward”
Pastor Andrew Davis
February 19, 2017
Matthew 5: 38-48

        What happens when someone hits you, says something that hurts your feelings, or does something to hurt you?   Do you hit that person back, yell at that person, or do you resist, or turn away?  I admit that my years in elementary and middle school were not the happiest years of my life, but taught me a lot about turning the other cheek and not getting even.  I was often picked on, bullied, or harassed on nearly a daily basis, sometimes making it unbearable to get up and even go to school.  Yet in some ways, I was a socially awkward kid, which made me an easy target for those who decided they liked making people’s lives miserable.  But I also didn’t hit back either, partially because I didn’t believe in fighting back, but was more afraid of being suspended even if I was acting in self-defense.  Now while I would defend myself, my family, or anyone here today if needed (differentiating between self-defense and retaliation), not retaliating is an embedded value that I still hold dear, along with turning the other cheek where I can and not holding onto grudges.  But while those years in school weren't always happy, they were also very formational. Even amidst enduring the ugliness people brought and still bring today, there may be a reward for that, even if it may not be readily available in this lifetime, but in heaven.
        As we continue along with Jesus’s teachings from the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew's gospel, we are actually continuing with the antitheses this morning, the ‘this, not that’ statements that we encountered in last week’s text.  Today, we have two more of these ‘this, not that’ statements when Jesus says “you have heard that it was said/but I say to you” statements as we continue with last week’s theme of ‘this, not that.’ However, Jesus does mention a reward in today’s text, while continuing to raise the bar on what it means to be his followers and his disciples by living with a greater sense of integrity.  While we dealt with some pretty heavy stuff last week in hearing what Jesus had to say about murder, anger, adultery, divorce, and oaths, which may have also been a little unsettling, we deal with retaliation and showing love towards our enemies this week. 
        Now I think that when Jesus mentions “you have heart it was said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ and “’you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’” it’s easier to look to that, the old way of living (Matthew 5: 38, 43, NRSV).  In the old way, when someone does you wrong or hits you, you hit back.  When someone shouts at you, you shout them down and put them in their place.  In other words, retaliate and obliterate those who do you wrong, at least if you read that text literally.  But that’s not what Jesus is saying in this, the new way of living.  Instead, Jesus says do this: “don’t resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also,” or even the even more radical and challenging teaching, “love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5: 39, 44, NLT).  However, it doesn't mean allow an enemy to walk all over you, but Jesus's challenge also points to the ugliness we may encounter here and there and that our reward is in how we respond and navigate the sometimes ugly waters that are out there.
I have to admit that when I first heard of this idea from Jesus early on in Sunday School, my first instinct upon hearing “love your enemies” was heck no!!  I cannot love my enemies!!  They don’t deserve to be loved!!  I also remember several times growing up with an "it's them or me that goes attitude" in the church and would often got a long lecture about forgiveness and loving my enemy or those who persecuted me from our pastor, Sunday School teachers, or my mother, as I was very fickle and petty as a teenager and very young adult (I still consider myself young, for the record).   Nevertheless, this gives us food for thought about how we treat everyone, including people who have hurt us through their words and actions and even people who we may have hurt through our words and actions.  Professor Karoline Lewis explains that
Jesus now helps his disciples realize that following him will mean meeting up with those with whom you would rather not come in contact, with whom you might consider your enemy. Love your enemies. You will come across those outside of your immediate circles with whom the principles you learned from Jesus you’d rather not share. You will meet others for whom you’d rather the Kingdom of Heaven need not apply.[i]

Now I'll also admit to you that God's still working on me on this, as it's much like building upon what Jesus says about anger from last week’s lesson, that if we “call someone an idiot [or other mean-spirited names], [we] are in danger of being brought before the court,” as Jesus is saying we need to get a grip on our anger and check our words before we speak (or today, post on social media), something where I am constantly checking myself when I feel myself getting overheated at times.  In fact while watching Match Game on Wednesday nights, or when I get too into the Kings game, I have to bite my tongue and think of these words Jesus is telling us, trying not to call contestants or players stupid or other names.  Same goes for when politics come up in the news, a very powerful exercise in trying not to call them bad names. It’s like that little song “o be careful little lips what you speak…” Amidst these challenging lessons, Jesus is also taking this new teaching a little further this week.
Even in the moments when we have been attacked at one time or another, even in this time of high tensions, political/ideological differences, and other petty differences that do more to divide us, and a culture that oftentimes feels like it encourages us to act with an ‘eye for an eye’ mentality over such differences, Jesus is calling us as his disciples to take the higher road.  It’s not rewarding in the long-run to act out in retaliation to those who hurt us or wrong us, even though it may feel rewarding in the heat of the moment.  Jesus is saying don’t act out and return violence with violence.  But Jesus is also saying to pray for those who do you wrong, challenging as it may be.  That also does not mean praying for ill will or vengeance on them either.  Yes, it's stuff that is easier said than done, but still rewarding when we are willing to practice this.  Instead, 
Jesus is calling me, and you, and all of us who would call ourselves his disciples to move beyond that way of responding.  Because a righteousness that only involves loving those who are easy to love, while at the same feeling hatred and wishing vengeance upon a person who has brought us harm will not generate a lasting reward, nor will it generate a real and lasting society…it will not bring justice.  It will only bring more harm.[ii]

        Living righteously, or a life pleasing to God, requires this, the new way that Jesus teaches each of us as we seek our reward in heaven.  As we have also heard before, or if you are hearing it for the first time, Methodism’s founder, John Wesley’s three simple rules are to ‘do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God,’ echoing Jesus’s words to practice non-violence and to pray for our enemies, even when it means turning the other cheek at times.  Even back in the Beatitudes earlier in this chapter, Jesus says in Matthew 5: 11-12, “God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers.  Be happy about it!!  Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven” (NLT).  Your reward is in how you act, how you do no harm, how you do good, and how you will stay in love with God.  Yeah, revenge, punching someone back who has hurt us, or shouting down and obliterating that person might feel rewarding in the short-term, but won’t be rewarding in the long-run.  I think about Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. who constantly turned the other cheek, refusing to fight violence with violence. But, they also practiced love, even love of their enemies that Jesus is encouraging those who are still listening to him at this point in the “Sermon on the Mount” and each of us to do today.
  In Eugene Peterson’s translation of verses 43-47 from The Message, Jesus is telling the disciples “I’m telling you to love your enemies.  Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst.  When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves.” Now that’s what taking the high road entails when people give us trouble and that’s where  our reward is.  We let it bring out the best in us when we don’t retaliate.  In his commentary on this week’s passage, Jason Byasse writes in Feasting on the Word that
We are called here to love as God loves.  This cannot be done out of our own resources.  So this is no admonition to try harder – if it were, it would indeed be a recipe for despair.  It is a plan of action rooted in the promise to be made “children of your father in heaven” (v. 45).  The Sermon here and elsewhere 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.  If you want to follow this God, 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.[iii]

        The good news in all of this is that Jesus is showing us about how to love even the unlovable, to be able to look beyond our enemies and let those who try to bring us down try to bring out the best in us.  We as followers of Jesus can rise above all of the push and shove, the name calling, the mean-spiritedness and instead show everyone how we love through practicing non-violence, showing words of kindness, and exercising forgiveness.   Not through retaliation or getting even. It's like the song, "they will know we are Christians by our love,  by our love, yes they'll know we are Christians by our love." Jesus is showing us and teaching us that we can be better than those who retaliate, that we can be better than those who persecute us or lie about us.  This is the life that Jesus is inviting us into in the great invitation , to have a reward that awaits us in heaven by practicing this.  I think of Barbara Elsken whose life we celebrated yesterday and Geri Bernard whose life we will celebrate on Saturday, as they are now receiving their reward in heaven, their new life because they embodied their earthly life as “children of their Father in heaven.” In just my short time of knowing them, I saw how strong their faith was, even while waiting to go home to receive their reward in heaven. 
Our reward in heaven is what we need to be striving for as followers of Jesus Christ, as we need to do our best to put these words that Jesus is showing us into action in our daily living and keep on doing so, along with encouraging everyone we encounter to join us in embodying those actions. We can also invite others to join us in doing no harm, doing good, staying in love with God, turning the other cheek, and praying for those who persecute us or who may be our enemy.  Don’t go down to the level of those who persecute or lie about us by retaliating and being angry, but rise above and do everything in love, especially praying for your enemy or one who did you harm.  Even though Jesus challenges us in the final verse that “you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect,” we know that we are not perfect and this is where we put our ultimate trust and faith in Jesus, as Jesus is able to do that part for us as our Lord and Savior.  Like many who I know, “I believe [Jesus] when he says that seeking the reward of my heavenly Father is worth more than any temporary human feeling of worldly satisfaction, but I believe that the really difficult teachings like this one give us a portrait of the very heart of God.”[iv] As we prepare to fully live into this great invitation when Jesus invites us to follow him, we have our reward waiting for us as we strive our hardest to live like Jesus and love like Jesus did, today, and each day that lies ahead of us.
     In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let the church say AMEN! 

[i] Lewis, Karoline. ‘Commentary on Matthew 5: 38-48 by Karoline Lewis’. February 19, 2017. Accessed February 15, 2017.
[ii] Ministries, Discipleship. ‘And Now Your Reward — Preaching Notes’. 2017. Accessed February 16, 2017.
[iii] Jason Byassee, “Theological Perspective” on the Gospel reading for the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word – Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 382. Italics Rev. Dr. Pam Chesser. 
[iv] Ministries, Discipleship. ‘And Now Your Reward — Preaching Notes’. 2017. Accessed February 16, 2017.

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