"SHEPHERD" - Matthew 5:38-48 from Sunday, February 19, 2017

Alex Evans on February 20, 2017

A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor

Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA

From Sunday, February 19, 2017

Texts: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Matthew 5:38-48


            We have long lived in a threatening and uncertain world.

Recently, North Korea seems to be testing our new President by launching missiles. We also have had Russian planes buzzing US warships, and a Russian ship coming alongside the eastern seaboard. We have continuing issues with Israel . . . and Syria . . . and Iraq and more. All of this makes for increasing tensions around the world.

In a world of power and strong man politics, the one with the strongest fists, or the most guns, wins. Instead of the Golden Rule, the ethic of power politics becomes something more like “do unto others FIRST before they do unto you;” or, at least this, “If they do anything bad to you at all, finish them off before they can do anything worse.”

            This kind of antagonistic life has been going on for a very long time. This antagonistic life is not the way God intends it. All through the Scriptures, we learn about God’s better plans for human relations.

Early in the Old Testament, the law of God given to Moses intended to mitigate and moderate our inclination toward domination and destruction of one another. “No,” Moses said. “Don’t retaliate and intimidate with every ounce of destruction you can muster.” Moses sought to lead the people away from animosity and violence, to the Promised Land – a place intended for justice and joy, worship and service. So Moses taught: “Let the response be measured by the offense: an eye for an eye, and ONLY an eye; a tooth for a tooth, but only a tooth.”

And more than that, as we heard in our first lesson, Moses reminds the people, “you shall be holy, because God is holy. . . .  When you reap a harvest, do not reap the very edges of your field, . . . you shall not strip your vineyard bare; you shall leave them for the poor.” Moses continues with more faithful ethics by which we are to live: do not steal, do not defraud your neighbor; do not render unjust judgment; indeed, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

We always need to hear these words, for ourselves, for a better world. God’s way seeks to set human life on a trajectory of moderation and restraint, of care and help, of honesty and justice. This is what God intends.

But we keep struggling with this. Animosity surrounds our personal lives, our workplaces. We know all about it at the State Capital, and with life in Washington. Politics, the President, the press – everyone loves to point fingers. We seem to have a hard time responding well to the kind of life and interactions, honesty and integrity, that God intends.

I saw a great quote this week: “when we are the most blessed, we need to build longer tables not higher walls.”

And in the midst of some of Jesus’ most important teaching, he spoke about life, retaliation, and love. Listen to Matthew 5:38-48:

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.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Jesus wants to show us how to participate in the in-breaking of the reign of God. Jesus wants to gets us fully and finally into living in a way that promotes and embodies the reign of God.

The question is, can we do this? Is this realistic? Is this possible?

If you pay any attention to baseball, you know that these are the days when spring training kicks into gear. By now, pitchers and catchers have reported to camp to begin the new season. There is a spring training countdown clock on Facebook. Spring training is always full of hope for every team.

            If you pay attention to the comic pages, and the Peanuts strip, you may recall that story line from Charlie Brown. Charlie Brown is always hopeful about his baseball team. He wakes up thinking about baseball. He wakes us thinking about winning. He is so positive, thinking that finally THIS year – promise and possibility await.

            Is it really possible that his team will win a game? Well, that remains to be seen. He is still Charlie Brown, a picture of frustration. He looks ready and acts ready. . . . .But of course, he has grape jelly all over his shirt; . . . he still has Lucy in right field, and nobody who can hit, or catch,  . . and Snoopy running around. Is it really possible?

            Possibility and reality….. this is where we find ourselves.

Can we move from where we are . . .  to where God wants us to be?

            The WORD of the WEEK is SHEPHERD.

We are people of the Good Shepherd. And the Good Shepherd keeps trying to SHEPHERD us in the ways of God. So our emphasis is on “Shepherd” - as a verb – as in how can we participate with God in the shepherding of life toward the reign of God?

            When I was in college, I spent a year living and working in New Zealand. Part of that time was spent with Lyle Miller who, with his brother, mother, wife and kids, owned a large sheep farm. They raised sheep, shepherded sheep, keeping them safe and healthy, and producing wool for wonderful New Zealand yarn. That was their life – to shepherd, to care and corral, to feed and nourish, to maintain and then sheer the sheep for their wool.

            In a similar way, Jesus asks his disciples, asks us, to shepherd all of life toward the reign of God, the in-breaking of light and love, peace and wholeness that cover the earth. How does it happen? It happens as we allow God to change our hearts – to move us in new ways other than the way that people treat us.

Jesus says you have heard it said, “an eye for an eye.” But then there is the Jesus Way – how we might SHEPHERD in God’s reign for our lives and for our society. It happens specifically in how we treat one another. And Jesus wants to help us change our hearts so we can change the trajectory of the world – from violence and the inclination to revenge, to compassion and the inclination toward generosity. Change the trajectory from greed and selfish gain, to poise and magnanimous acts of kindness. This is what’s needed to bring about life and hope in our hurting world. Change hearts. Change the world.

And Jesus speaks about how this looks in very concrete, practical ways. If someone hits you on the cheek, offer the other one; if someone sues you in court, give them what they want; if someone forces you to go one mile, go two; and give to every beggar and borrower who asks.

In all of this, Jesus wants to move us from the reality of the world – a place too often full of revenge and retaliation, too often full of selfish gain and senseless animosity – toward the Kingdom of God. We live between reality and possibility.

Preacher and commentator, Tom Long, writes about this passage and says this: “it boggles the mind, of course, to think about living out this example literally in contemporary society.” If we did exactly what Jesus says – turn the other cheek, give to every beggar, and respond to every issue by giving double the amount, we would be broke, homeless ourselves, or in the emergency room before noon. There are beggars on every corner, including the corner of our church building. There are endless ways that we can be sued in today’s society. And we can all be quickly exhausted, both with our lives and our resources, if we tried to meet every need.

Long makes the important point that while Jesus words are NOT meant to be taken literally, they are meant to be taken seriously. It is about BEING IN OUR ACTS, WHO WE ARE IN FACT. We are the cherished, holy people of God – this affirmation is so clear - and we are called to be holy in how we live. We may not be able to meet the needs of every person who asks, but we are absolutely called with our lives to SHEPHERD in the reign of God – to change the world with how we live. Our PERSON and our daily PURPOSES seek to align with God’s intentions. This is what Jesus is getting at. If someone does evil to me, how do I respond with only good in return? The idea is NOT to be a victim – “oh, just hit me again” - but to be a BLESSING, embodying the presence and purposes of God. If someone needs sincere help, a handout – though maybe appropriate on occasion – really does little good. We need to be working on a HAND UP. As the holy people of God, we are called to SHEPHERD into reality the life of wholeness and hope, joy and justice that God intends for all. (see Matthew, T. Long, WBC, p.63f)

In our downtown setting, this can be especially difficult. We have people in and around our church who ask for help every single day. So we feed hungry people on Mondays. We provide other services in other ways; we support other efforts through our extensive mission. And we still have people asking us for more. We try to respond. I have seen various ones of you literally give your coat, or offer your shoes, or reach into your wallets, or go the extra mile to help. This is inspiring! This is part of SHEPHERDING life toward the kingdom of God.

But all of this remains complicated. And there are many problems. There are questions about what is helpful and what is toxic. We have to be thinking about this. There are questions about what is possible . . . and what is better than a handout. We keep working on this, talking, listening, helping each other.

Jesus absolutely wants us to SHEPHERD in the reign of God and it always involves how we act, how we treat others, how we live. We treat everyone with kindness and respect. We, and everyone we meet, are children of God. We have to recognize each other’s humanity. We have to see the light of Christ in each other’s eyes – everyone.

But here is where it gets more complicated, especially for me. So I am speaking to myself and to all of us here. It is okay to say “NO” in some situations because we are seeking to say “YES” in other situations. I think we can, and need, to say NO to some children of God who find themselves in very distraught situations because we are seeking to offer our resources and energy to other causes and efforts that strive to address the macro – situation. It is okay to say “NO” to the pan-handlers on the street who look for our dollars because we are giving our dollars to larger efforts to feed those who are hungry, or to ministries that provide housing, and medical care, and other services. What Jesus wants and expects of us is to SHEPHERD in the reign of God – and that is our goal in everything we do.

We are all called to live the kingdom ethic! We are all called to SHEPHERD in the reign of God.

I read again this week the story of Yoni Jesner. He was a Jewish young man from Glasgow, Scotland who was studying in Jerusalem. He was a strong student, well-liked by others, who was on his way to being a doctor. Several years ago, Yoni was traveling on the no. 4 bus in Tel Aviv when a suicide bomber detonated his belt: fifteen pounds of explosives, and made more deadly with the addition of bolts and nails in the backpack. Six people were killed. Dozens of others were maimed.

Yoni Jesner was on that bus and rushed to the hospital and placed on life support; but he had been brain dead since the moment of impact.

Yoni’s family and community were devastated. Yoni had been a model of decency and kindness. He wanted his life to be about saving life. After racing to the hospital, the family came to a quick decision. Yoni had wanted to save life. They would donate his kidneys, liver, and spleen. Among those whose life was transformed by this gift was Yasmin Abu Ramila, a 7 year-old Palestinian girl from east Jerusalem who had been on dialysis for two years awaiting a transplant.

That was an extraordinary deed – to save the life of someone on the other side, one of whose people had just murdered a member of your family. It takes exceptional courage and commitment in the face of such grief to make such a decision. But acts like these SHEPHERD in the reign of God. (see J. Sacks, To Heal A Fractured World, p. 209)

We are to be in our ACTS who we are in FACT. We are the holy people of God. We are living in complex and anxious times. We are called to live a certain way – seeing Christ in everyone we meet, striving to promote God’s purposes, and doing all things with poise and magnanimous grace, like God, for a more wholesome and hopeful world. May we keep working on this, helping each other with it, and so promote the love and light of Christ our Lord.  Alleluia. AMEN

Prayer of Commitment: Holy God, we seek to SHEPHERD in your promised reign. Show us the way. Make us effective servants of Christ our Lord. AMEN

Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on February 19, 2017. This is a rough manuscript.