A Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany

By: Louise Browner Blanchard, Rector

Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany
Matthew 5:38-48

The night of September 11, 2001, our church – like so many others throughout the country and the world – had a special service. There was a lot that we still didn’t know that night, including just who had attacked us and if they might do so again. In the face of so much shock and uncertainty, it was amazing how many people’s instinct was to go to church. People came in droves. Together, we sang hymns, and heard familiar scripture, and said prayers…including for our enemies.

For one particular man, it was simply too much. He jumped up and walked out, his head shaking in disgust and his heels clicking loudly down the long aisle. Who could blame him?

I think of that night and that man whenever I hear today’s gospel. It’s what I call a “Yes, but…” gospel. We all know the ones…the ones that, even before we finish hearing or reading the words out of Jesus‘ mouth, we start making excuses for why it doesn’t apply to specific situations in our lives. For example, if someone says to me, “Do not resist an evildoer,” I immediately think “Yes, but not someone who is trying to harm me or my husband or one of our children,” or on a larger scale, “Yes, but not someone is attacking our country.” Similarly, when I hear, “Love your enemies,” I think “Yes, but not someone who has deeply hurt me or someone I love.” “Yes, but not someone who has caused real grief, pain, or suffering.”

The hard part is that Jesus doesn’t give us that out. His “yes, but…” has the opposite effect. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ Yes, “but I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” Jesus makes it harder, not easier.

But when we can hold off on the “Yes, but…” long enough to think of the possibilities if we do it Jesus‘ way, we’re challenged, yes…but also opened up to possibilities that are much greater than where we wind up if we simply go right to the place of “Yes, but…” Wrestling with the import of what Jesus is saying forces us to look at ourselves and our motivations, the people who are affected by what we do or don’t do, and the fruits of what a different way of doing things might be. It pulls us out of ourselves and asks us to discern where God is calling us and those around us, what creative alternatives Jesus‘ example might provide, and where what has thus far been a problem can become the seeds of a solution.

I think this was sometimes hard even for Jesus. Matthew and Mark both recount the story of Jesus’ encounter with a Gentile woman who begs him to heal her daughter who is possessed by a demon. At first, he simply ignores her, but she keeps begging him. His disciples urge him to send her away, so he tells her that he is only sent to care for fellow Jews and that it would not be fair to take what is theirs and give it to her. He actually refers to the Jews as children and the Gentiles as dogs. But she persists, and he is compelled to see her in another way, to extend his ministry of healing to her and her daughter, and as a result to expand the notion of who is part of God’s kingdom.

It’s easy to love those who love us and feel at home with those who are like us. It’s often satisfying to fight back against those who hurt us. Living that way may well result in lives that are successful and even admirable in many ways. For some of us, that’s enough, and we’ll find plenty of company saying, “Yes, but…” Yet most of us are here because we yearn for something deeper, something different, something more. However difficult the message, we know in our hearts and souls that it propels us to a truth that is greater than anything we can come up with on our own.

Remember, that to most of the world who were witnesses to his life, Jesus was a failure. His message was ridiculed, and he died a petty criminal’s cruel death. His disciples clung to his message and the promise inherent in his resurrection by the skin of their teeth. Within 40 years, many of them had been martyred as painfully as Jesus, and the whole lot of them was kicked out of the faith in which they had been raised. Yet, here we are today. Not because Jesus’ followers prevailed by fighting back, but because they persisted in seeking the way of Jesus.

So resolve to follow where the commands of today’s gospel can lead you. Several weeks ago, at the Diocesan convention, one of the most captivating features was a panel discussion among a Muslim member of the faculty at Virginia Theological Seminary and one liberal and two conservative Episcopalians. As you would expect, there was plenty that the four people did not agree about. But they listened respectfully to one another and found a surprising amount of common ground. What we all witnessed were the possibilities that opened because they were willing to listen to one another. In this fractured time, what could be more healing than simply acknowledging and listening to someone who has a different viewpoint?

So engage in a discussion with someone whose political views are different than yours, and discover how much your concerns are the same even if you have different solutions. As many of you did when our CARITAS guests were here, share a meal with someone who is homeless and discover how much you have in common, particularly the hopes and dreams that you have for your children. Learn about the wide range of medical services that our outreach partner Goochland Free Clinic and Family Services provides and appreciate the challenges of health care for those who are uninsured. Join in the conversations that we’re having with our fellow Episcopalians in the East End, and see how our common heritage strengthens our ministries to ourselves and each other.

And pray, really pray, for someone who has threatened you or distressed you or simply confounded you. As you pray, imagine where they live, what their house looks like, who their families are, and what circumstances led them to be or do whatever has brought you to the place where you are with them today.

This is, after all, what distinguishes us as Christians. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth has been a principle of civilized societies – no matter what their religion – for thousands of years. Jesus proposed something so radically different that we still struggle with it today, but so radically compelling that it’s why we’re here today.

Will our answer be yes? Or yes, but…?