A Sermon for the Seventh Sunday After the Epiphany

Preached at Christ the King Chapel, Sunday, 20 February, 2011

Lectionary Year A, Proper 7: Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18, Psalm 119:33-40, 1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23, MAtthew 5:38-48

Preaching Text: “But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matt 5:39)

A man who used to be imilitary police told me a story that had clearly stayed with him for a long time. Once, somewhere overseas, this fellow was in a bar having a drink with some of his MP friends, and a soldier came in looking for a fight. Now just as in the civilian world, where cops are often not very popular with certain types, there are some soldiers for whom the sight an MP’s red cap or beret is like the proverbial red cape to a bull. The soldier started mouthing off, clearly looking for trouble. As the man described it, he didn’t want a fight, but he wasn’t going to back down either, and pretty soon punches were thrown, faces were cut and a nose broken, and when it was over the MP had gotten the better of it. He won the fight, but he didn’t feel very good about it.

This man wasn’t a Christian then and it didn’t lead to a dramatic conversion, but this event got him thinking that there were other ways to live. After the bar fight he wasn’t proud of himself and he made some changes. During a long car trip I was listening to this story and part of my mind jumped ahead to this Sunday, knowing that you would (quite understandably) likely want me to say something about one of the most famous and most difficult lines from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – his command to “turn the other cheek” and “not resist an evildoer”.

Our Lord’s commands in the Sermon on the Mount are not easy. These words from Matthew 5:38 are especially hard, even impossible ones, for soldiers. Soldiers are trained to face conflict. I suspect that if I had been there in the bar that night and told the MP to turn to the other cheek to that belligerent soldier, he would have said something quite rude in return. Even in the regulations and limits that militaries try to place on warfare, Jesus’ words are seemingly inapplicable. Our rules of engagement and our laws of armed conflict explicitly guarantee the soldier the right to protect his life if he or she feels threatened. As for not resisting evildoers, those famous “fight fear, fight chaos, fight with the Canadian Forces” commercials of some years back were all about taking the fight to the bad guys before they can hurt the good guys we have the duty of protecting. As General Hillier once so eloquently put it, the job ot the CF is to fight and kill “detestable scumbags and murderers.” We learned in the 1990s that when we didn’t resist evildoers, massacres like Rwanda and Srebrenica inevitably followed.

It’s thus very tempting for those of us in the military to deflect today’s gospel reading because of this one verse about turning the other cheek. It’s almost impossible for us not to dismiss it as idealistic, as naive, or as an exaggerated call for a heavenly goodness that no human could ever attain. However, if we do decide that Jesus is preaching the impossible, then we have to be honest about the consequences. We then have to admit that we are downgrading Jesus from Son of God and King of Kings to a nice chap who had some lovely ideas that we should try to follow when convenient. I don’t think that we who are disciples and followers of Jesus, we who call him Lord, have that option. Jesus has been clear throughout the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 that his words are law not suggestion, that he is the focal point, the lens through which the Law given to Israel through Moses must now be viewed: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil: (Matt 5:17). So however reluctant or resistant we are to this difficult gospel, we need to engage with it and try to discern why this matters to God and so why it matters to us.

Would it be helpful as a first step in this process of discernment if we asked, what if these aren’t arbitrary, impractical commandments designed to make our lives harder in the world, but rather part of God’s plan to make life in the world a better? What if put the turning the other cheek passage in the context of the other readings today and looked for patterns? Leviticus 19, our first reading, seems like a good place to start. Leviticus is a book that has a pretty bad reputation as the no fun book of the Bible. It’s not often read because it seems dull, archaic and intolerant to many today (it Because it’s a book that spells out in great deal God’s law as given to Israel, and because some of those laws seem archaic and even bizarre, the book has a bad reputation. In a well-known episode from the TV series The West Wing that ran from 1999-2006, President Bartlett demolishes an evangelical Christian leader who insists that homosexuality is against God’s will because of a passage in Leviticus (Lev 18:22)

Here’s one that’s really important because we’ve got a lot of sports fans in this town: touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point?

I’m sure a lot of liberal, educated people (including myself, because I remember watching it at the time) snickered when they heard that line, because it makes anyone who takes the Old Testament seriously look like an ignorant, intolerant rube. One wonders what the liberal, educated script writers of The West Wing and their fans would have made of our passage today from Leviticus 19.

Look at the society proposed for God’s people by God in our first lesson. What does that society stand for? It has laws demanding that enough food be set aside for the poor and for “the alien”, which assumes a generous immigration policy. A society that doesn’t have crime, but not because tougher sentences and more prisons are proposed. Rather, crime will be reduced because people will be honest at the heart level, not only not stealing but not lying to one another. It will be a society with labour laws that protect the humblest worker from exploitation, that respects the rights of the handicapped, has honest courts and judges, and will not require hate laws because speech will be free of hate and slander. Sound too good to be true, like some idealistic politician’s speech? Maybe, but is it any less idealistic than the words of a Jewish rabbi that we should turn the other cheek, or give both cloak and coat, or go the extra mile? God’s vision can be pretty idealistic, but then, so is the idea that we be holy, as God is holy, or perfect, as our Father is perfect. Those are hugely idealistic statements, but then God’s kingdom is hugely idealistic.

All of our readings today have the idea of holiness in them, culminating in our Lord’s challenging (and seemingly just as impossible) command to “Be perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). If we take that as an individual mandate, thinking that each of us as an individual has to become another Mother Teresa or John Paul II, then we are sure to fail, because God’s idealism isn’t a plan for individuals. Leviticus reminds us that God is calling his people to a way of life, so God’s people can cooperate with him in showing the world itself as something closer to what God meant it to be. In the day of Leviticus that people was called Israel, now that people has grown to include what we call the church. That’s what we heard Jesus sayearlier in the Sermon when he told his followers to be salt and light for the earth (Matt 5:13-14).

Part of our objection to this gospel reading, I suspect, centres on Jesus’ claim that we should “not resist an evildoer”, but we forget that there are many ways of resisting evildoer. Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela come to mind as three figures who found great strength to resist in at first must have looked like weakness to their opponents. Evil is real, and when it is met with a violent response (as in, for example, a long geurrilla war) that is a simulacra of itself, its true nature is obscured. When it is allowed to reveal itself for what it is, without obscurement, its true nature is revealed. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who himself found strength in weakness, wrote while in a Nazi prison that “Evil always carries the seeds of its own destruction, as it makes people, at the least, uncomfortable” (“After Ten Years”, 1943). Bonhoeffer’s point, as I understand it, was that the persistent choosing of good, if that means refusing to return evil for evil, reveals the weakness of evil.

There are times in the confrontation with evil where soldiers must still be ready to protect the innocent, as we learned in Rwanda and Bosnia, and as we may be forced to do in Libya. But soldiers can do so in a way that is highly constrained, wholly alien to the way the Roman legions kept the people of Jesus’ world in line. Think of the iconic young Canadian soldier going face to face with the Mohawk soldier at Oka, but mutely enduring his provocations.

Or, think of a NATO unit in Afghanistan, enduring repeated IED attacks from a faceless enemy, and remaining committed to its mission of rebuilding the country and winning the trust of the locals. Other armies through history, such as Hitler’s SS or the Roman legions of Christ’s day, would have destroyed villages suspected of harbouring resistance. However, the deliberate limitation of force and the use of “soft” military power is possibly a sign of God’s hand in human history, a gradual evolution in how fallen humanity thinks and acts in a fallen world.

Ultimately it is God’s holiness, God’s idealism, and God’s plan that will prevail. We who worship the resurrected Son of God can have confidence in this. For we who follow the risen Christ, our holiness comes not through the vain hope of our self-perfection, but rather comes from association, from our discipleship, our following the God who is holy. Our discipleship begins the day that we cease rejecting our Lord’s commands as impractical and unworkable. It begins when we begin, with eager hearts, to accept these words, to accept their constraints upon our angry thoughts and responses, and to allow ourselves to be channels of his light and love so that evil shrivels and retreats before us. That was the trust that sustained Bonhoeffer in Tegel Prison, or Mandela on Robben Island. It’s the hope that sustains us now.

You may be wondering, incidentally, what became of that young MP. He is older now, in a different trade, working to help soldiers and their families. I wish I could say he is a Christian (there’s always that hope). I can say though that something changed in him that night in the bar. Christ’s words work in odd and powerful ways.