Text: Matthew 5: 38 – 48
Theme Verse: “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." (Mt 5:38)
Psychologists tell us that revenge fantasies can be a healthy way of assuaging our feelings of victimhood when we are wronged. Jesus, on the other hand, calls us to a different vision of love for our enemies. Where is your anger directed these days? Who is your enemy?
Do you struggle with fantasies of revenge? Can you possibly fathom ‘turning the other cheek’? In the most famous sermon of all time, Jesus debunks many common reactions we have to situations in our lives. Perhaps this word is needed today more than ever.
reader : Giselle Chebny
preaching : Rev Mark Briley
Super Bowl Sunday. It’s not the most important thing happening in our world today, obviously, but it’s a thing and I know that, statistically speaking, 72% of us will have our televisions tuned to the big game this evening. It’s the most watched sporting event in the world. I don’t personally have a team in the running today but “Confessions of your Pastor #879”: I really don’t want New England to win. It’s not that Atlanta does anything for me but I lived in Indianapolis for almost a decade during what most considered the fiercest rivalry in the NFL – Peyton Manning’s Colts versus Tom Brady’s Patriots. Everyone in Indy knew who the enemy was. In 2007, the Pats and Colts met mid-way through the regular season, both teams with undefeated records at the time. A friend of mine offered me a ticket to go with him to the game and you know I was down. After the early service that Sunday morning, Dale put a couple of tubes of paint in my hands saying, “I’ll pick you up at one o’clock and this better be on your face. No paint. No ticket.” Now Dale’s enough of a prankster that I thought, “Okay, I’m going to slather this stuff all over my face and he’s going to show up with nothing. Jokes on me.” I rush home after worship and have just a few minutes before Dale was to show up. I didn’t want to take the chance on missing out so I gave the paint to Carrie and said, “Do something to make my face look good.” She’d given up on that hope years ago. She knew I needed a lot more than paint to make my face look good but she helped me anyway. Moment of truth. Dale shows up at the door looking like this:
He’s a beast. Took him several hours to work his magic and that was after the four-hour trial application he had done the night before just to see if it would look right. We had our war paint on and were set to go into battle with the enemy. It was a close game but the Colts lost and my paint-on beard smeared quite a bit in the battle. And I’ll tell you… there were some angry people at that game. Colts and Pats fans alike. And there’s no way they all knew each other’s mother’s like they said they did. The enemy won that battle. The plot for revenge began.
Now this is just football of course. But there is something in the human psyche that is driven toward revenge fantasies. It’s been a standard movie plot for years for that very reason. A vulnerable hero is hurt or wronged by some evil person or force and then gains strength to overcome the injustice, settling the score just before the final credits roll. It’s why Liam Neeson has his “particular set of skills” needed to get the bad guys in the movie series, “Taken” (which is soon becoming a television series I understand). Matt Damon will never be without a job as Jason Bourne will always have a corrupt government to expose and rectify the wrongs against his own life and those close to him. Quentin Tarantino cashes in time and time again at the box office in the most brutal of ways. He plays to the human desire for retributive justice. Everyone ultimately gets what they deserve. Do you know this desire for revenge? We may not want to say it out loud but surely its crept up in your spirit at some time or another. Someone tries to race past you before the orange construction barrels condense the two lanes into one. Is it there, under the skin? Maybe it’s a boss who wronged you or an ex of some kind who just drives you bonkers. Does revenge have a place in your spirit?
When it comes to revenge, Jesus comes along to turn life on its head again. “You have heard it said…” he says throughout the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel. Six times he drops that line. You have heard it said, “You shall not murder,” but I say if you have anger in your heart for another, you’ve already moved toward murdering that relationship in your spirit. You’ve heard it said, “Don’t commit adultery…” but your wandering eye is just as dangerous to your marriage. “You’ve heard it said… you’ve heard it said, you’ve heard it said.” And Jesus makes his way to the passage that we consider together this morning. The people tasked with subtitling sections of scripture for The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible sat around a table one day, I imagine, and decided, “Let’s call this section: ‘Concerning Retaliation.’” Concerning retaliation. It’s as if they know personally this reality within the spirit. “I’ve been there,” they must have been able to say to each other. Concerning retaliation. Everyone seems to know that internal anger that swells on the inside.
Have you sensed that anger this week? The world is hurting right now – our nation is so tense. And you’re feeling it, I know. I’ve heard from you. Friends, colleagues, people on every possible side and angle of it all venting anger and frustration and palpable insecurity of spirit. I was personally overwhelmed myself on more than one occasion. The vitriol and sense of a monolithic approach to everything. We seem to be more concerned with labels and sides right now than seeing one another as human. Some of the angst shared with me was all about social media. People saying, “I tell myself, ‘Put down your smart phone and step away from the device.” But then they follow it with “I just can’t look away!” At 5:30 pm, someone will post, “I’m done with Face Book for a while. See you in 2018.” Come 5:45 pm, they’re back! What is happening? Friends are posting article after article, quote after quote, image after image, liking, commenting, inserting angry emoji’s and yet most everyone I talk to typically says, “No one ever changed their mind on anything because of a Face Book post.” So then I wonder why we are so obsessed with posting? Some would say, “Truth is truth and it needs to be posted.” Another would say in all CAPS, “I’M ENTITLED TO MY OPINION!” Some would say, “I have friends who are hurting and they need to know I stand with them.” And I can appreciate everyone’s desire to engage these realities – we can’t turn away from them – but I wonder if we’re helping our causes or if we’re simply further alienating those who, at one point or another, we friended on Face Book as a way of connecting with them more deeply. When we see a post we disagree with we seem to initially think, “Oh no you didn’t.” What if, instead, we began with “I wonder what that person has been through that has led them to this conclusion at this point in their lives?” And what if instead of responding with a post in anger, we seek that person out the old school way and truly listen to their story, and share our own, not to debate an issue but to understand each other better. Author Anne Lamott, writes, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
I visited the Confucius Temple in Nanjing, China last fall. Confucius lived before the days of Christ and was a Chinese philosopher. It rained during our whole visit there but the ancient temple was gorgeous, it’s history a wonder. Confucius is known for his many proverbial sayings, one of which was “If you devote your life to seeking revenge, dig two graves.” We are doing a lot of grave digging these days it seems. Concerning retaliation. What does Jesus say. He says, “You’ve heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Turn the other cheek. If someone asks for your coat, give them your shirt too. If you’re forced to walk a mile, go a second. We’re familiar with this passage. We remember it because it sounds strange to our ears. The eye for an eye law is the oldest law in the world. It is called the tit-for-tat law and is found in the earliest known code of laws… The Code of Hammurabi — named for the Babylon Ruler. It made its way into the Hebrew law and we find it at least three times in the First Testament: Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy.
Believe it or not, this law was an attempt at mercy. The tribal tendencies in those days was the bench clearing brawl mentality. You hit my guy, everyone on your team goes down – including the water boy. The tit-for-tat law was an attempt to curb tribal revenge so that only one person would receive punishment and it had to be the equivalent of whatever wrong they had assailed. We understand the mob mentality. When someone strikes us on the cheek, or a loved one, or a group of people we are standing up for, we’re prepared to use our particular set of skills to counter punch. And I want to say clearly, Jesus’ call to turn the other cheek is not a ticket to subject oneself to abuse. It does not justify an abusive relationship, hateful, abusive rhetoric, or anything of the sort. In fact, some have noted that turning the other cheek would actually bring shame to the aggressor and giving your cloak or walking an extra mile would actually be a stronger stand against the oppression than any other vengeful response. Even Paul’s words to the Roman Christians was, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them for in so doing you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Kill ‘em with kindness. I don’t know if Jesus’ motives here are the same but what I do think is that the authority one gains through self-control moves the hope of change forward more than the power exercised in retaliation. And, of course, this is an incredibly difficult thing to do when your passionate about anything. Long term change, however, comes with a steady spirit more than a reactive, trigger happy revenge.
Friends we are in a tough spot right now. We are a fragile people and I’ll admit to the challenge of having strength enough to hold us all as we navigate all that we feel against the Gospel truth that is not about us being comfortable. It’s terribly hard. Nadia Bolz-Weber, an insightful Lutheran Pastor, said, “Sometimes being in ministry feels like having so little to offer – like I dig deep and yet all I have to put on the table is some dryer lint and a couple broken Happy Meal toys and I’m sure the deal is off and yet God seems to look at that and go, “Perfect! THIS I can work with. Let’s get to it!” And again,” she adds, “I am having to question God’s judgement.” I’ll admit to knowing those very feelings and those very emotions. “I got nothin’, God!” I wrestle with it. Should I retaliate strongly? Should I slash the tires to make a statement? Should I retreat to the safety of The Bix or run to the desert to bury my head in the sand? And I have to recognize, I can wrestle with all of this from a privileged vantage point. My insides may be churning – my spirit may be taxed, but I am basically safe. And I, and all of us who are, always have to remember that. But such doesn’t change my humanity. What do I do? One of my minister friends said this week, “Someday I’m going to write a book talking about the similarities between long tenured pastors and long distance running. Until then here’s a thought for the day: “Consistency beats intensity.” Consistency beats intensity. And I think that is what Jesus is offering here in the most famous sermon ever preached – maybe the only sermon we ever really need. Don’t blow everything up because your emotions are holding you hostage. It’s not that Jesus was never intense. We know that he certainly was intense sometimes. He flipped some tables in his day. He WWE’d some tables in the temple ring if you know what I mean. But he most often was a literal calm in the midst of the storm. And when he couldn’t handle it… when his spirit needed a time out… he went away to pray for a bit, to scream into a pillow perhaps, to lament his own pain and that of many hurting people, and then he got back to loving people through it… even his enemies.
“Well,” we may think. “I ain’t Jesus, and I can’t love those people right now” (you fill in whoever ‘those people’ are in your own spirit this morning). And I want to say to you, “Yes you can.” Phillip Gulley is an alumni of Christian Theological Seminary where I also received my Master’s degree. He’s older and much wiser than me. He’s written a number of books including a series called “The Front Porch Tales” which lifted the voice of small town American life. He’s a Quaker pastor. He wrote these poignant words about hate: “Now I want to tell you a lie. Hate is an emotion we can’t help. Hate is a feeling we cannot overcome. If we hate someone, it is because we just can’t help ourselves. We’re human. We have no choice but to hate. That is a lie. Unfortunately, it is a lie many people believe. They believe this lie in order to excuse their hatred. After all, if we can’t help but hate, if hate is a feeling we simply cannot help, then hatred is never our fault, is it?
But we can help it. Hatred is a choice. We choose to hate, just as we choose to love. Oh, I know, there are people out there who believe love isn’t a choice, that love is primarily an emotion, a feeling, a stirring in the loins. These are the same people who stay married for six months, then divorce. These are the people who love the idea of love but seem unable to stay in it. Love is a matter of the will — something we decide to do. Love is a choice.”
Jesus says, “It’s super easy to love the people who are just like you, who think like you, vote like you, tweet just like you – anybody can do that. But I’m calling you to more than that.” And then, if he hasn’t challenged us enough in these verses he adds, “In summation and conclusion, be perfect as God is perfect.” What? Eugene Peterson puts it pretty bluntly as he translates this word for The Message: “In a word, what I’m saying is, ‘Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it.’ Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” Perfection is not ours but in this time, I wonder if a step toward Christ is to move from embitterment to the embodiment of the Way of the realm of God.
How can you do that this week? Maybe it starts one on one. We’ve got to move somehow from claiming that any one group is evil and dangerous because of the color of their skin, the religion they practice, the way they vote, or any other group we are currently vilifying as the human race. God’s heart has to be breaking through all of this. And Christ is always present where the need is greatest. If you’re safe, help someone who isn’t. If you’re not crying, hold someone who is. If you hate someone’s view, see if you can find space in your soul to see their humanity in some way and start loving them in even the smallest place of an attempt at empathy.
You may have seen this video this week. It’s a simple video but added some needed soul refreshment amid the rest of the chaos. It’s a video of fifth grade teacher, Barry White, Jr. and his students. Saying his name alone makes me want to say, “Oh yeah.” Before class starts each day, he welcomes each one of his students with a special handshake that the two of them have created together. Check it out… 
Most of the handshakes are pretty detailed. When asked about it, he essentially said, “Each student needs to know I see them before they care about anything I have to teach them.” He has built trust with each one of them in this way. He’s valued each student uniquely. And I can’t believe each student is his favorite, right? Some of those kids probably hit a strong nerve at his very core day in and day out. But they start each day with a connection that says, “I see you.”
Who do you need to see? Maybe that person is in your own home—your spouse, your child. Maybe you need to see your republican or democrat friend who posted something that made your stomach churn. Maybe your need to see the eight-year-old refugee who’s eyes say, “I just want my family to be safe like yours.” Maybe you need to see your pastor, your teacher, your colleague, your neighbor, the judge, the roofer, the doctor, the fireman, for the humans they are. Maybe I need to see Tom Brady. Lord have mercy. Maybe you need to see __________. (you fill in that blank. You probably know who you need to see through the eyes of Jesus. You maybe had a few choice words for them this past week.) And Jesus says, ‘Anybody can hate them. But I love them. Won’t you try?’ You’ve heard it said, “Love isn’t worth it.” But I say to you, “Love is always worth the effort.”
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 Bob Kaylor, senior editor for Homiletics Online influenced this message through his work, “Revenge Fantasies” located in that resource; particularly the movie references.
 Background to the text found in William Barclay’s commentary on “The book of Matthew.” Westminster Press. 1975.
 https://www.facebook.com/sarcasticlutheran/posts/366205333486737 Nadia Bolz-Weber’s posted this quote on Facebook a few years back. It has surfaced often sense in various blog posts of others.
 –Philip Gulley, For Everything a Season (Multnomah, 1999), 204.