These passages that are part of the Sermon on the Mount are some of the most difficult passages to preach in the entire Bible. They are so counter-cultural, so offensive to the common-sense of our American family-value system, that we would just rather ignore them.
But these are the words of Jesus, and they are some of his very first words. So, if we want to call ourselves Christian, we can’t ignore them.
So, to avoid offending too many people, we preachers use a little trickery, a little flimflam, a little smoke and mirrors. We pull this off by talking less about what the passages are saying, and more about what they are not saying. It’s a technique that we preachers often employ to basically ignore what they are actually saying.
“But if anyone strikes you on one cheek, turn the other also.”
Now, this is not saying that should be pushovers.
“Someone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you!”
This is not saying that we should help those who are perfectly capable of helping themselves.
“Love your enemies.”
Now this is not saying we have to like them!
See how that is done? Preachers get by with this all the time, and their congregations let them, because they are only preaching what we all wished the Sermon on the Mount actually said.
And then, to put the finishing touch on this chicanery, we quickly skip to the end of the passage and point out the last verse: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
It is then we say: “You see. None of us can be perfect. Therefore, Jesus really does not expect us to do any of these things. He is just laying out some high ideals—ideals that we can never live up to.”
That’s when we preachers leave the Sermon on the Mount and go off on a tangent about grace and the need to accept Christ as our personal savior because none of us are perfect, and we all fall short of the glory of God.
Now, I believe in grace. I need grace. I am by no means close to being perfect, so grace is my friend. Grace is my hope. Grace is amazing. But here’s the problem with using grace as an excuse to not act on the offensive counter-cultural commands of the Sermon on the Mount, and it is a huge problem— At the end of the sermon, Jesus (as if he knows we will try to use grace as some get-out-of-doing-what-I-say card) says:
Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!
So, what are we to do with these passages? “Do not resist the evil doer?” Really? Someone slaps us in the face, Jesus really wants us to turn and give them the other cheek to slap? And are we really supposed to give people the very shirts off our backs? Give to everyone who begs of us? Go the second mile? Really?
No, this just can’t be. For it’s directly opposed to almost every value we possess.
We read these words of Jesus, and we have a problem. Let’s face it. We have a big problem.
Now, are you ready for some good news?
Well, you are going to have to wait, because the bad news is still coming.
The truth is: these very difficult and problematic words of Jesus expose an even bigger problem for some of us. I know it does for me. Think about it…
When was the last time that you have taken a stand against an evil, an injustice, and because of that stand, because you stood up and spoke out, the supporters of that evil not only sent you a nasty email, defriended you on facebook, personally confronted you, but physically attacked you by slapping you in the face?
What I am asking is: when was the last time that you even had an opportunity to turn the other cheek?
When was the last time someone who was very cold approached you and knew you well enough to ask you to give them the very coat that you were wearing? —Ask you to to sacrifice warmth so they could be warm? When was the last time that you even had the opportunity to offer someone in need the shirt off your back?
When was the last time that someone with limited mobility or perhaps a disability, whether that disability be physical, mental or spiritual, asked you to walk just one mile on their behalf? When was the last time that you even had the opportunity to go an extra mile? For mile two is impossible without mile one.
When was the last time that someone in great need came to you and begged for you to help them? I am not talking about the person you see holding a sign at an intersection, “Help. Homeless Vet.” I am talking about someone whose name you knew, someone who knew your name, who felt like they could trust you, coming to you personally, swallowing their pride, and asking you for help?
When was the last time that you even made an enemy? After all, isn’t confrontation something we all like to avoid? Isn’t it better, especially in this day and time to mind our own business, keep our thoughts to ourselves?
Our problem is not that we are unwilling to turn the other cheek. Our problem is that we are so private, so unconcerned about anyone other than ourselves, that we never cause any confrontations.
Our problem is not that we are unwilling to give someone the shirt off our back. Our problem is that we are never around anyone who needs our coat.
Our problem is not that we are unwilling to go the second mile. Our problem is that we lack the empathy to put ourselves in the shoes of another and go one mile.
Our problem is not that we are unwilling to give to needy who personally approach us and beg of us. Our problem is that we do not personally know anyone in need.
Our problem is not that we are unwilling to love our enemies. Our problem is that most of us have never created any. We are so self-absorbed, so afraid of any controversy that might cause us a little pain, we simply never put ourselves out there to make any enemies.
When others are slandering another in our presence, we seldom, if ever, come to the other’s defense. If someone is voicing a position which is obviously against our faith in the Christ who taught us to love all people as we love ourselves, we prefer to keep our mouths shut to avoid any drama.
And if we ever become bold enough to speak out, to take up for another or some gospel principle, if we know we have offended another, we usually go out of our way to always avoid that other.
And because we stay away from them, because we keep our enemies at such a safe distance, we are simply nowhere close enough to them to even think about loving them.
You’ve heard the wisdom of keeping you friends close and you enemies closer.
Frederick Buechner, one of my favorite preachers, tells us why:
You see the lines in their faces and the way they walk when they’re tired. You see who their husbands and wives are, maybe. You see where they’re vulnerable. You see where they’re scared. Seeing what is hateful about them, you may catch a glimpse also of where the hatefulness comes from. Seeing the hurt they cause you, you may see also the hurt they cause themselves. You’re still light-years away from loving them, to be sure, but at least you see how they are human even as you are human, and that is at least a step in the right direction. It’s possible that you may even get to where you can pray for them a little, if only that God forgive them because you yourself can’t, but any prayer for them at all is a major breakthrough.
Through the Sermon on the Mount I believe Jesus is urging us to come close enough to others that we will truly be able to see them as children of God, as brothers and sisters. There is no “us” and “them.” There is only “us.” The sun shines, and the rains fall the same on all of us.
Now, here is the good news:
The good news is: You are here! You have put yourself out there. You are not so self-absorbed and selfish that you stayed home this morning. Your self-concern has not crowded out your moral concern.
The good news is that before you go the second mile, you have to go the first mile, and because you are here, in this place, in this community, listening to the difficult words of Jesus, you are well on your way to going that first mile!
The good news is: You are here, and together, as a church, we are going to go places where we will encounter people who are in such need that they may ask for our coats. And we will have opportunities to sacrificially offer them our shirts.
We will get to know people who are so desperate that they may beg of us. And we will have opportunities to selflessly give.
Together, we will speak up, speak out, and stand firm for the gospel of Jesus Christ, for prophetic justice, for the unconditional love of all people. And sadly, because of this, we will make some enemies. We are apt to stir up so much anger in some people that they will not only defriend us on Facebook, send us ugly emails, but they may want to slap us in the face! But together, because it is impossible to do it alone, together, as part of the household of God, we will not ignore them. We will pray for them. We will learn to love them.
And no we are not perfect, far from it. But we are at least on our way to becoming like the wise who built a house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.