Sunday, February 23, 2014

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, Sunday, February 23, 2014

Beloved sisters and brothers, let us look to the Lord.
May only God’s word be spoken,
May God’s word be heard.
In the name of Jesus, I pray. Amen.

Jayber Crow is a novel by Wendell Berry – a Christian who, in his own words, "takes the Gospel seriously” – and it’s told from the point of view of the main character, Jayber Crow, who is a barber in Port William, Kentucky. The setting is the late 1960’s, and as a barber he interacts with a lot of different folks during the course of a day.

One of those folks is a fellow named Troy Chatham that Jayber just struggles to get along with. Don’t know about you, but I’ve run across folks like that every now and then myself.

Now, Troy is an “agriculture as big business” kind of guy, buying up farms and always more concerned with profit than the farmers, and whom Jayber thinks is destroying the land in their county. To make matters worse, Troy has married Mattie, the woman whom Jayber had secretly “admired” for a long time.

So, here we are in the late 1960’s, and as in most of the rest of the country at that time, there are disagreements over Civil Rights and the Vietnam War. Troy is a fierce supporter of the U.S. government’s policies, including the war. One evening in the barbershop, Troy starts talking about how much he hates the war protesters… and hope you don’t mind but I cleaned up the language a little.

“They ought to round up every one of them sons of (guns) and put them right in front of the (darned) communists, and then whoever killed who, it would be all to the good.”

There was a little pause after that. Nobody wanted to try to top it…

It was hard to do, but Jayber quit cutting hair and looked right at Troy. Then he said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.”

Troy jerked his head up and widened his eyes at Jayber. “Where did you get that crap?”

Jayber says, “Jesus Christ.”

Troy responds simply with, “Oh.”

For Jayber, it would have been a great moment in the history of Christianity, except that he didn’t love Troy.

This morning we hear Jesus telling the disciples to turn the other cheek, forgo revenge, give more than what’s required in a lawsuit, go the extra mile, give to all who beg, lend without limits, love the enemy, pray for persecutors, and greet the stranger.

Jesus highlights the surprises that characterize life in God’s kingdom; he challenges the disciples to do the opposite of what seems normal and reasonable.

These are important words for us to hear, some have called them the by-laws of the church, and they were also guiding words for Mahatma Gandhi…

… when writer Louis Fischer visited Gandhi's ashram in 1942 (an ashram is the home of a small religious community), he noticed a picture of Jesus on the wall – the only wall decoration around – with the caption, "He is our peace."

"But you are not a Christian," he said to Gandhi.

"I am a Christian and a Hindu and a Muslim and a Jew," Gandhi answered.

"Then you are a better Christian than most Christians," Fischer thought to himself.

Gandhi is said to have spent two hours in meditation every day – one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening – for the last 40 years of his life. This became the foundation for all his daily work for justice, independence, and service. Most of his meditation time was in silence, but the one of the things that he always read from was the Sermon on the Mount.

Gandhi was probably the greatest modern Christian "fundamentalist" because he took Jesus' word seriously and strictly adhered to his fundamental teachings of love, nonviolence, and compassion.

Gandhi lived his life according to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, and returned to that handbook on nonviolence every morning and every evening. In his private letters, he was puzzled why other Christians didn't do the same.

Gandhi considered these texts the greatest writings on nonviolence in the history of the world. Since he wanted to become a person of nonviolence, he treated these teachings as a basic primer, as the catechism of nonviolence.

“For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

These questions from the Sermon on the Mount get right to the heart of the spiritual life. Why don't we love everyone, everywhere unconditionally? Why not love our enemies, as Jesus said? Why go along with a culture of war? Why not practice "agape" like Jesus and his greatest followers, saints like Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Archbishop Oscar Romero, and Dr. King?

Jesus is adamant. He wants us to practice universal, unconditional, sacrificial, all-inclusive, nonviolent love. Be like God, he tells us; love everyone on the whole planet. He exceeds the ancient biblical commandment, "Thou shall not kill." He even surpasses Isaiah's call to "beat swords into plowshares."

He leads us beyond anger, despair, greed, fear, anxiety, selfishness, violence, murder, and war, to God's own universal, compassionate love.

With these challenges, Jesus throws down the gauntlet and compares our limited love to tax collectors and gentiles. Tax collectors did the dirty work of the Roman Empire by robbing the impoverished masses and collaborating with military domination. They profited from the sufferings of the poor. This comparison must have shocked and horrified his listeners.

He calls us not to be like them, not to hurt anyone, not to live off the sufferings of the poor, and not to limit ourselves to the narrow expectations of our culture.

He's trying to push us beyond our limits, to the heights of divine love, the highest ideal, the fullest potential of our humanity.

Jesus probably already assumes that we are trying to love our neighbors as ourselves, to love our parents, children, relatives, friends, and colleagues. But he wants us to go further, to love those around the world, especially those who are marginalized and disenfranchised .

Jesus expects his followers to show active, creative love to the marginalized, the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the lonely, the immigrant, the imprisoned, the condemned, the sick, the elderly, the dying, and the enemy.

He's looking for something new and unusual, ultimately the love that nonviolently lays down one's life for those in need.

This call to practice a love that transcends boundaries has always haunted, challenged, and energized me. Even if few can fully live into such love, the call to us to work towards Jesus’ command remains right there in the Sermon on the Mount.

I think it means traveling to places we normally wouldn’t go – soup kitchens, homeless shelters, prisons, death rows, refugee camps, hospitals, conflict zones – and once there, to befriend, love, and serve everyone in need.

I think it means living with a heart as wide as the world. Jesus certainly demonstrates such extraordinary love by serving the poor and marginalized, breaking through his culture, resisting injustice, and laying down his life nonviolently for a new world of love.

This call is worth praying and reflecting on every day. It invites us to examine how well we love others and our enemies, how well we show compassion, how wide we might permit our hearts to grow. What is more beautiful than a life spent offering unconditional, compassionate love toward every living being on the planet? What could be more fulfilling, rewarding, or holy?

… Life is precious. We have only so much time here on earth. I hope more and more of us can begin anew to try to practice this unusual, universal love, this perfect compassion. I think it's our vocation, the reason we were created: to love Christ in every human being, especially in the poor and in the enemy.

If we dare practice this unusual, universal love, I think we will enter the paschal mystery of nonviolence, the divine mystery of love, and be filled with light, hope, and peace. Who knows, we might even learn to love Troy.

Thanks be to God!
Amen! Alleluia!

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