Matthew 5: 38-48
19 February 2017
“Take my lips, Oh Lord, and speak through them; take our minds and think with them. Take our hearts and set them on fire, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
I want to start with a story this morning. I read it on Facebook years ago. But it was first reported on the NPR show, Morning Edition, maybe 8 or 10 years ago. It is, apparently, a true story. First though, I want to ask a question. How do you think you would react if someone threatened you and demanded all your money? I can’t imagine how I might react. Oh sure, I know how I would like to react, but, since I’d surely be scared out of my wits, I don’t know what I would actually do. That being said, let me tell you about Julio Diaz. As I recall, when this story happened, he was a 31 year old social worker living and working in NYC. Like most of us, Julio had a daily routine. After work he would get on the subway and ride for an hour out into the Bronx. He usually got off where he could stop at his favorite diner for dinner before walking home. Then, one day, he stepped off the train onto a nearly empty platform and something unexpected happened. As he walked toward the stairs a young man, just a teen really, came toward him and pulled out a knife. The kid demanded Julio’s money. And Julio, hoping to avoid injury or death, handed over his wallet. The teen turned to go. That’s when Julio did the unexpected thing. He spoke up to say, “Hey, wait a minute…you forgot something. If you’re going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.” The kid stopped short at that. He turned around with a puzzled look on his face. Then he blurted out. “Why are you doing this?” Julio went on to explain that he figured if the kid needed money so badly that he’d risk prison for it he must really need the money. Julio went on to say that he was simply trying to get dinner after a long day. Then he said, and I love this, “if you want to join me, hey, you’re more than welcome.” So, Julio and his attacker went to the diner and found a booth. That was when all the diner staff, from manager down to busboys and dishwashers, began to come over and say hi. The kid was completely taken aback. He asked if Julio owned the diner and Julio replied, “No, I just eat here a lot.” The teen, in some amazement, blurted out but you’re even nice to the dishwashers!” Julio’s reply? “Haven’t you been taught you should be nice to everybody?” “Well, yeah”, said the kid, “but I didn’t think people really behaved that way.” Next Julio asked the boy what he wanted to be when he grew up. And the kid, one way or another, seemed unable to come up with an answer. Well, the conversation went on. Julio and his attacker ordered their meals, ate, and then received the check. Julio pointed out that the kid would have to pay for dinner since he had all of Julio’s money but that if the kid would give back the wallet Julio would pay. The teen handed over the wallet, Julio paid and then gave his attacker $20.00. Julio said later that he figured maybe he could help the boy somehow. But, he did ask for one thing in return. Julio asked his attacker for his knife which, amazingly, the kid handed over to him. When Julio’s was interviewed by NPR, he said that in this complicated world he just tries to treat other people right and hopes that they will, in turn, treat him right. “It’s that simple”, Julio says. How does this story relate to our Gospel lesson? What are we to make of it? How does it apply to us? Once again, our reading is from the Sermon on the Mount. We heard Jesus say: “Do not resist an evildoer…love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
He gives a variety of examples then ends with these absolutely challenging words. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Remember, Jesus is talking to each of us just as much as he was to his original disciples and the crowd gathered that day. Good grief. “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”? It seems impossible, doesn’t it? And yet. We call ourselves followers of Christ, “little Christ’s” as it were. Getting ready for Bible study this week reminded me of something that might help. It concerns that word perfect. When we hear Jesus say “be perfect” we generally assume that he means ethically or morally perfect. And we know that is beyond our human ability. The Reverend Danae Ashley points out, in a sermon on these lessons, (Sermons That Work) that we might do well to think about what “perfect” or “tamim” in Hebrew, would likely have meant to Jesus. The Hebrew word implies wholeness or completeness, even maturity. Huh. The Holy One, whose nature is best reflected by Jesus, exemplifies wholeness. We are to focus on God wholeheartedly, loving as our Creator first loved us. Mother Danae makes the very good point that if we strive for wholeness in the Holy One our lives as disciples will show it. Our love will begin to extend even to our enemies. Now, let’s be clear, to love our enemies does not mean that we will, somehow magically, have warm and fuzzy feelings for them. Love here is not about feelings, it is about action. The word “love” is, in this use, a verb. Frederick Buechner, in his book “Whistling in the Dark”, defines love as willing good for the other just as we will good for ourselves. Jesus asks us to act with radical kindness to all others in imitation of God’s loving-kindness toward us. In short, Jesus tells us to share God’s love with those all around us. Here’s the thing, Jesus refers to us as “children of God”. It’s a shorthand way of saying that we share the nature of God. We hold within ourselves the qualities of God. To be a child of God is to participate in the divine nature by reflecting God’s love for all creation. Henri Nouwen, a priest and author, wrote primarily about our nature as God’s beloved children. Let’s try an exercise that Nouwen suggests. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Be still. Now, imagine the voice of our Holy and Creating God speaking directly to you. “I love you, I have loved you from before the beginning of creation, I will love you forever, and I have chosen you, my beloved.” What is it like for you to hear that you are loved by God with such utter completeness just exactly as you are right now? To me, and I learned this first from Nouwen in his book “The Prodigal Son”, the powerful, and challenging thing, about knowing myself so loved is that I must recognize that every single other person is just as chosen, just as beloved as I am, as any one of us is. What an incredible thought. Look around. Every one of us is beloved and chosen by God. Next time you’re out and about, look around. Every person you see is beloved and chosen by God. Is there someone you strongly dislike, or someone who has hurt you in some way? That person is beloved and chosen by God. Apparently, that means even the driver who cut me off in traffic Wednesday is beloved and chosen by God. Our Creator’s love is so far beyond our imagining that it’s hard to get my mind around it. How is it for you? Here’s the thing. Jesus came so we could see for ourselves how entirely life changing, how life giving, it is to be so aware of the love our Creator holds for us. Jesus came to invite us to share that love so others can experience it too. I don’t know Julio Diaz, but that story of how he responded to his young attacker points out the power of loving as we have first been loved. It shows what it means, in the end, to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. Amen.