If I was to summarise today's sermon in two words, they would be 'stand up'! So as that is a very physical instruction, and we tend to remember the things we have actually done, I'd like to invite you to do just that - and if you are unwell or differently abled and standing up is too hard for you, at least imagine yourself standing up, tall and straight. So, 'stand up'. Excellent!
Now while you're standing there, I want you to remember who you truly are - a child of God, made in God's image. Nothing and no one can take that from you, no matter what happens. So stand there in your full dignity as a human being. And while you are standing there look at the others here, and recognise that each of them is also a child of God and made in God's image and is to be treated accordingly. And think about the many others not here, perhaps those you find a bit different or difficult to understand or get along with, and recognise that they too are children of God and that we need to stand up for them, especially if others are abusing them or treating them asl ess than human. Finally turn your gaze inward a little and see if you can recognise some of the parts of yourself that you find difficult to get along with - those parts of yourself that perhaps you think are less than perfect. Let some of those just stand up for themselves a bit, and be recognised, so that perhaps you can smile at them gently and realise that they are part of who you are, so that you are less inclined to project your imperfections out onto other people and start hating them. And let's just stand together as the people of God in this place.
Thank you. You can sit down. At least now I know you are all awake! and hopefully if anyone asks what I said today, you will be able to reply, 'she told us to stand up!'...
All this stuff about turning the other cheek and walking the second mile and giving away your cloak - surely Jesus does not mean us just to be a doormat? Indeed not. I think some of you were here when we looked at this text three years ago, and I explained that for example if someone gives a blow on the right cheek, using their right hand, it has to be a back-handed slap. A back handed slap in Jesus culture was the greatest possible insult, and both Jewish and Roman law permitted prosecution for such an offence. To then turn the other cheek would oblige the striker to use the palm of the hand, which would dishonour them. Moreover it was to say effectively, 'do you see what you are doing? I have refused to retaliate, so I have exercised a free choice. I am standing tall in my humanity. Now, here' s the other cheek. Still want to hit it? You have a choice you know.' Similarly a soldier could demand that a Jew carry their pack one mile, but to carry it further would turn them into a lawbreaker and bring them dishonour, and to offer your cloak (which was actually your underwear ) to someone who took your coat would leave you naked and that would be dishonourable to them - you could walk naked and say 'I'm a child of God, what more can you do.' So you can see that Jesus's suggestions are deeply subversive. They rely on a personal and courageous choice to stand tall in our own choices and to refuse to allow someone else to determine who we are.
So what about loving our enemies? For Jesus' Jewish hearers there was no doubt about who their enemy was, the hated Roman oppressors, whose taxes and policies of conscription affected every facet of daily life. Jesus tells them to love them. No wonder some people found his message difficult. We may think we have no enemies, but I would think that very few of us get along peaceably and easily with everyone all of the time. Certainly we would recognise aspects of
ourselves that we dislike and would seek to change. So whether the enemy is external and distantas in time of war, or closer at hand among our family, friends and work associates, or within our very selves, Jesus instruction is the same. Love your enemy. Which also means we have to know our enemy as intimately as possible, because we cannot love those whom we do not know. This is really hard. In certain circumstances I believe we are afraid to try and love our enemy -
'what if I try and love them, pray for them, but they still injure me?' Well in certain circumstances 'turning the other cheek' may involve walking away from the situation, and seeking to continue to love and care for that person from afar. There is never a good enough reason to stay in a situation of personal abuse or violence when it is possible to choose to stand up in your dignity as a human being and walk away. However where that is not possible for whatever reason, love for our enemy is still the spiritual imperative. For example, a Tibetan monk had been tortured in a Chinese prison for 22 years. He was asked, 'what were you most scared of?' And he replied, 'I was afraid that I might lose my compassion for my torturers.' Or think of Nelson Mandela, who wrote in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, 'I knew that people expected me to harbour anger against the whites. But I had none. In prison, my anger towards whites decreased, but my hatred of the system grew. I wanted South Africa to see that I loved even my enemies, while I hated the system that turned us against one another.' When we love our enemies, we refuse to give in to the mantra that says There is no alternative, and we create freedom and choice for ourselves and others. This is what Jesus himself believed and lived and how he came to die with the words, 'father forgive them for they know not what they do' on his lips.
Jesus urges us finally to 'be perfect'. The Greek word 'teleios' implies mature or complete, rather than simply keeping the rules without mistake. Of course we do not reach that full maturity in this ife, yet when we love without limits we are most like the God who makes us. Being God- like involves a freedom to love and serve others that is is in no way bound by others' character, motives or relationship to us or to God. This means that when we 'stand up' as a Christian, we are
not just signing on the dotted line of a set of rules that will get us to heaven. We are opening ourselves to an ever deepening conversion of our whole being so that we grow ever more deeply into the full likeness of Christ - in whose name. Amen