Hard Sayings of Jesus that Give Life

A Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany

 Year A – February 23, 2014

David Hathaway Knight, Priest Associate


 Send your spirit, God, to open our hearts and our minds to your Word, and strengthen us to live according to your will, in Jesus Name, Amen.

The noted author and historian, David Mc Cullough, in his book, Brave Companions, writes in the opening sentences of Chapter 15, titled “Extraordinary Times,

“The span of years since 1936 has been the most troubled, unsettling, costly, adventurous, and surprising time ever.  There is no period to compare to it. More has changed, and faster, more has been destroyed, more accomplished than in any comparable interval in the five thousand years since recorded history began.

To a very large degree it has been a time of horror, of war after war, wars to stop wars, religious wars, wars of “liberation,” many more than fifty wars in fifty years, including the worst war of all time, the shadow of which is still with us.  Terror and atrocity have been made political policy and carried to hideous extremes.  But it has also been a time of marvels and unprecedented material progress for much of humanity.  To many areas of the world it has brought the exhilarating awareness that change is actually possible, that things don’t have to say the same.”

These last few words leapt off the page and grabbed my attention when he writes,  “…the exhilarating awareness that change is actually possible, that things don’t have to stay the same.”  In the spirit that for us things don’t have to stay the same, Jesus, in today’s gospel reading calls us to examine our lives, that you and I might be open to seeing things in a different light, and that when necessary, our actions can actually change.  My dear friend and colleague from Winchester days, Tom Joyce, used to say how so often we live unexamined lives, and how we miss so much by doing so.

In today’s gospel reading we hear,

“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 evil doer.”  And, “. . . .but if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” This Sunday’s stern words follow on the heels of last Sunday’s equally stern words from Jesus. “You have heard it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’… but I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…”  How easily we forget how demanding the words that Jesus says to us are when he calls you and me to a radical examination of our actions and thoughts many of which we take for granted because we have not thought otherwise nor examined them.  Our natural inclination is to avoid these words of Jesus much as we avoid a root canal. We develop strategies to avoid taking seriously to heart Jesus’ commands especially when they make us uncomfortable.   In an attempt make these words palatable, we have come up with such things as the notion that these are simply spiritual admonitions directed at our souls that they are figurative and not really meant as actual requirements for the way we think and live.  After all, life may require that we hoard our stuff and keep our riches to ourselves, that we bomb our enemies, that  we use weapons of human destruction to protect ourselves and our homes, or that we stand our ground, that last about which we are hearing much these days after the killings of Trayvon Martin and Jordon Davis.  Our temptation is to boil down the hard sayings of Jesus into a mushy, vaguely deistic faith suitable for publication on a Hallmark card.  Jesus would have none of this, nor should we.

 As we look at Scripture, we note that killing and death are mentioned frequently in the Bible: Cain and Abel, Noah and the Ark when everybody that didn’t get on the boat died.  We hear of Samson and the Philistines, of David and Goliath, of John the Baptist who lost his head when it was served on a platter to Herod’s wife at her request.  There is Stephen, who was stoned for standing up for what he believed, and then there was Herod himself, bless his heart, who was struck down by God and eaten by worms. (Eaten by worms—isn’t that crazy?) Indeed, our Christian Faith is based on what happened following a legal execution, the killing of Jesus. That ignominious death, however, was followed by his Resurrection from the dead, an act of God’s grace that has changed the world.  If we are to follow Jesus, then as Christians, are we not called to make a difference in this world?  If so, then Jesus has some things to say to us.  We ignore his words to us at our own peril as people of God.

“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 and evil doer.”  The notion of eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth has for so long been the clarion call to justify retaliation.  It begins early in life for most of us.  You know how it goes in the school yard, Billy and Johnny are in the playground at recess and they get into fisticuffs.  Called into the principal’s office, it’s “Johnny hit me first, so I had to hit him back.”  My wife Jeannie, who teaches four and five year olds often will say in her calm voice as teachers so often are called to do, “Now hitting and hitting back are never OK. Remember, use your words.”  As we get older, the stakes get higher and retaliation can take on horrific consequences.  Jesus was well aware of that natural tendency in human nature to retaliate.  He knew, for example, that defined justice in his time was that retaliation was part of the legal system and he called for a new order.  To this day, this mindset of retaliation is part of the rationale for the justification of the death penalty.  Jesus called people then to a radical shift in their thinking and in their behavior.  His words are no less compelling to us in our day.

As one of you reminded me over lunch just the other day, the most famous, if not notorious execution in human history was the execution of Jesus.  Jesus was tried and convicted in a legal trial because he was seen as a threat to society.  After due process of the law, he was found guilty.  His death was a violent execution by being nailed on a cross as was the custom of the day.  The crucifixion of Jesus, however, is the only execution in human history out of which came some good.  We observe the horror of the day of his execution on Good Friday where in many churches, in addition to the Good Friday Liturgy, there is the service of the Way of the Cross, a service in which we recall Jesus’ painful steps toCalvary. We observe but we do not celebrate his execution. It was too horrible.  The good that came out of his execution was that God raised Jesus from the dead giving hope to the world, hope that evil will not prevail and that retaliation is not the answer.  

There are times, especially during this time of year in the Knight family, when the memories of January 30, 1997, and what has followed for our family, have been the occasion for some very special conversations. These can be holy times for us.  As in any family, each one of us is dealing with Jamie’s murder in different ways.  We try to keep in touch and share our memories and our thoughts as they continue to evolve over time.   Recently, our oldest son, David, and I had a conversation in which he was recalling his journey regarding his beliefs about the death penalty.  He said again how he was glad that his brother’s killers did not receive the death penalty but instead were sentenced to life behind bars.  As I reflected upon what he said, I asked if I could share some of his insights about his journey with you this morning as the gospel reading about which I would be preaching would be dealing with Jesus’ words about retaliation, “eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth.”  It had struck me profoundly during our conversation that son David was speaking to the very matter that Jesus is addressing in today’s tough gospel reading.  With his full knowledge of what I am about to say, and with his permission, I share with you as best I can what he shared with me.  He said that if even one person could be helped in his or her struggle with this matter, he would be grateful.  David had spoken about how he and his wife Heather used to have discussions about capital punishment even before January 30, 1997, asking themselves if there could possibly be any circumstance in which the death penalty could be justified.  He said how they were specifically using the argument, “What if someone killed someone we loved such as a family member?  Would it be justified then?”  They couldn’t come up with a single justification. They recounted that it is not a deterrent to crime, that use of the death penalty is racially imbalanced, that it costs more to keep someone on death row than in life imprisonment and in the end, that it is final and there is no way to take it back if the person executed is later found to be innocent, as has happened.  You can’t dig up someone who has been executed in error and say, “Oops…sorry.” And in the end, it can never bring back the person taken from us.

 Heather and David had concluded that there is no sane rationale for the death penalty, but it had always been an academic discussion.  But on January 31, 1997 when Jamie’s killers were apprehended and the trials began shortly thereafter, it was no longer academic. It became intensely personal.  Their conviction that the death penalty is wrong only became stronger.  David then voiced what we have heard so many people say across this land when families face the possibility of seeing the killer of their loved one executed—that executing Jamie’s killer would bring no closure, no peace.  He went on—“Dad, it’s very personal for me; I don’t want somebody else killed in the name of my brother.  Would it bring Jamie back?  No, it wouldn’t.”  Then, David said, “Dad, if it’s eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, to use a line from ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ the world would be blind and toothless.  He also offered this when he said, “We are called to examine and re-examine what we think and believe and if we no longer are willing to reexamine our views, what’s the point of going on.”  I share his thoughts with you this morning because my son, in his wisdom and from his journey in walking the walk has said it better than I could hope to say it. Characteristic of David’s emails is the quotation under his signature, words of Martin Luther King Jr who said, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already void of stars.”

We are reminded that over a half century ago, the Episcopal Church, in its call for Justice, adopted as its official position at General Convention of 1958 its opposition to the death penalty.  It has remained the church’s position ever since.  The Diocese of Virginia has adopted the same policy.  As one of you pointed out this week, while the death penalty still exists, application of it is diminishing and there can only be hope that change is actually possible.

Today’s gospel reading confronts you and me with the command to examine our lives in every way we can, and on any matter that has an impact upon our relationships with one another.  If you and I belong to the God of grace, which we do, we must become willing to be a person transformed by God’s grace.  I think once again of the words of the author David McCullough when he speaks of the exhilarating awareness that change is actually possible, that things don’t have to stay the same.  As you and I seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will, we might well find inspiration in words found in the Cadet Prayer of the United States Military Academy at West Point.  From that prayer come these words:

O God, our Father, Thou Searcher of human hearts, help us to draw near to Thee in sincerity and truth.  May our religion be filled with gladness and may our worship of Thee be natural.

…Encourage us in our endeavor to live above the common level of life. Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong and never be content with a half truth when the whole can be won.  Endow us with courage that is born of loyalty to all that is noble and worthy, that scorns to compromise with vice and injustice and knows no fear when truth and right are in jeopardy.” 

Send your spirit, God, to open our hearts and our minds to your Word, and strengthen us to live according to your will, in Jesus Name, Amen.