Epiphany VII: “The Third Option”

Epiphany 7a –  February 19, 2017
Leviticus 19:12, 9-18
Psalm 119: 33-40
I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Matthew 5:38-48
“The Third Option”
A sermon preached by Rev. Beth Orling (Lutheran) at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA.
        The little girl started to cry. She was a good kid. She wanted to please her parents and teachers. She liked her friends. She usually did the chores her parents asked of her with reasonable compliance. But she was asked in Sunday School to memorize the verse, found in today’s Gospel, “Be ye therefore perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.”  (Mt. 5:48). She was old enough to know that she wasn’t perfect and could never be perfect.
        Unwittingly, she was following the same thought track as Martin Luther and many others before her.
        There seemed to be only two options: try even harder or give up trying altogether.
        Luther as a young man severely punished himself for not trying hard enough.
        Others have given up trying.
         Either way, perfection became the enemy. Despair over not being perfect misled the child, Luther, and others into thinking it was up to them to bring God’s reign into the world. And those who quit trying also felt despair deep down – for living only for oneself is a lonely and tragic life.
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        Riffing a bit on Rev. Maxwell’s message from last Sunday: there is no need to wallow in guilt – or in despair.  And I trust none of you has go ven up trying to lead a Christ – like life.
        There is a third option. The last word in Rev. Maxwell’s sermon last week was forgiveness.  Forgiveness – both giving it and accepting it — is at the core of the Christian life, at the core of any healthy life.  Not the kind of forgiveness that says, well, you tried, you failed, but now get out there and try harder.  Not the kind that says, well, you can’t possibly do this, so just try to live in peace.
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        Remember Jesus’ Baptism?!  He didn’t need to repent or ask forgiveness, but he stepped into that Jordan River to be one of us; to show solidarity with sinners like us who struggle; to bless us with the heavenly words that make us saints: You are my beloved! He would then seek out the lost; teach, heal and forgive; and invite us to follow in that seeking, healing and forgiving, even as we have been sought, healed, forgiven and loved. This is the path from despair to abundant life.
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But back for a moment to our daily, personal conundrums. I get stuck in this Gospel passage on the part about turning the other cheek. I can comprehend forgiving an enemy:  at least praying for one. Ex-spouses and annoying neighbors are great places to start. Moving on to ISIS takes much greater effort, but we can pray for them to be changed into compassionate citizens of the world. Turning the other cheek seems like the ultimate call to active forgiveness. Not just forgiving for the first slap, but willing to endure the second and forgive that as well. Some preachers have explained this verse away by saying that offering the second cheek would shame the attacker into backing off. Meh?!
        I would also rightly remind us, no one is called to accept domestic violence. Forgive, if you can, but seek help. Don’t encourage a bully. Speak up when able and get help.
        If this disturbing command is a call to forgiveness, we soon discover that we cannot forgive on our own, especially in circumstances of deep pain: medical malpractice that robs a life, drug abuse that destroys a family and children, people who drive while drunk or drugged, broken promises. And I cannot even begin to speak for or to people in the world’s worst prisons, people driven from their homes with nothing, or people drowning off shores of prosperous countries.
        I can only speak for myself and perhaps encourage some of you. With God’s help, forgiveness can be radically freeing. When we let go of our pain, our anger, our ego, we can hear r Jesus’words as God’s vision for our lives – not as judgment or impossible mandate.
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        The Greek word for “Perfection” is telos. It means the ultimate goal and purpose. For example, the telos of an arrow is to hit the target. The telos of a young seedling is to grow into a blooming flower. The telos – the perfection — of you and me is to follow Christ through life and death to life – to our ultimate goal.  If Jesus calls us to the path of becoming perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, he calls us no from a throne of heavenly bliss, but from the cross.  Jesus expanded the laws of Moses to guide us as we walk the path to perfect completion. But, since none of us could do this on our own, he did it FOR US. He turned the other cheek, forgave his enemies, prayed for those who persecuted him FOR US.
        In the most painful hours of his life, Jesus held all the brokenness of the world on his shoulders. Even though the world had come to hate him, he did not hate back. “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they do.”
     He loved all people FOR US. He blazed the trail of holiness and perfection…all the way to the cross and grave and to his Father’s right hand – FOR US. He invites us to walk with him on that same path.
        There would be suffering, but also redemption. Jesus says we have the power to choose to do more than is required, to go beyond, to go the extra mile and to love and forgive – not just our neighbor but our enemy too.

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        Many Christians follow Jesus by seeking reconciliation with enemies, or with perceived enemies, or seeking dialogue with people some might perceive as enemies. Desmond Tutu in South Africa fought against apartheid; many institutions stopped investing in that country as a non-violent way of promoting reconciliation between peoples separated by law. Martin Luther King, Jr., suffered and died in the cause of racial equality. Churches in Manhattan opened their doors to Arabic-speaking people terrified after the 9/11 attack. One church I know of still houses an Arabic-speaking congregation which worships there every Sunday. Churches in our area–and across the
nation–are organizing seminars to help understand Islam and Islamophobia in today’s hostile atmosphere of fear of the Other.
        The Episcopal Diocese of Olympia joined the lawsuit opposing the executive order to ban immigration from seven majority Muslim countries.
        Lutheran churchwide bishop Elizabeth Eaton has asked the administration not to stop the U.S. refugee admissions program or to stop resettlement from any country for any period of time.
        Church organizations have stepped up their attempts to legally and materially protect refugees seeking to resettle here.
        Four hundred people supported the Faith Action Network by going to Olympia last Monday to learn, discuss, talk with legislators and support our Muslim sisters and brothers. Currently, the City of Port Townsend is considering a resolution to declare itself a Sanctuary City of protection for immigrants.
        These are actions we applaud as followers of Christ’s teachings. We don’t even think of the so-called enemies in these stories as enemies; they are our brothers and sisters. We pray that we do not deliver the first slap to anyone, that we do not persecute,
demand the coat or the extra mile, or fail to greet a stranger.
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        The great third option asks us to forgive ourselves, to accept God’s forgiveness. It means the little girl – or the scrupulous adult — does not have to cry because she can’t be perfect. It means the despairing person does not have to give up trying and live just for him or herself alone.
        We are o.k. not because of what we DO, but because of how much God loves us. We live in a state of grace with the freedom to follow Jesus where we are called. Living for God and neighbor, we face the challenges of this life with heart – felt hope, and we fall asleep at night or on our last night, with the peace of God which passes all human understanding – in Christ Jesus.