Turning the other cheek and other laws.

This is my first sermon after all of the t’s have been crossed and the i’s dotted, or so to speak. After the trip to Chamberlain to meet with the conference Commission on Ministry, I am official. I guess now it is time for me to make an effort to take more classes and begin the journey to learning more about what I am doing. For now the 30 people who attend church in our building in middle of the prairie seem to be fine with the way things are going. I am happy and hope we continue on for a bit together.

So the scripture used for today were from Leviticus 19: 1-2 and 9-18 and Matthew 5: 38-48. I have decided to include the prayer at the end because it seems to add a bit to the point I was working on. Also, I would like to acknowledge the fact that the UCC website has a wonderful page called “Sermon Seeds.” It is done by different church leaders and is such a great help in terms of background information. I have learned so much from reading that each week, even when I go off in my own direction, the information I learn there is most helpful. God’s blessings to those who write there.

What should we turn?

If you are sports enthusiasts like James and I are, you will know that tonight is the end of another Olympics. For me, this winter’s Olympics was a nice diversion, but it is time to get back to the regular scheduled broadcasting. Actually the reason that I even thought of the Olympics while I was studying the scripture for today was the fact that Canada beat our hockey teams. It wasn’t enough that they beat our women, but they had to go and beat our men too. My initial response when our women lost was, “it’s OK, our men’s team can go out and get revenge.” Now we all saw how that worked for us. There was one goal in the whole game, and it wasn’t on our end of the rink. We failed to defend our honor; we failed to get revenge against our neighbor. And in the end, we didn’t even win the bronze. Perhaps it is because we put too much stock into the game against Russia, a country some might remember as our enemy during the Cold War.

There are all sorts of sayings about how to treat friends, neighbors or enemies. One that popped into my head this week was the old adage of: keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. I also couldn’t help but remember the words that Shakespeare put into the mouth of Julius Caesar in an early scene of that tragedy. Caesar looked at Cassius, who was leading the attack that ended in Caesar’s death. Caesar looked at Cassius and said, “Yond Cassius has a mean and hungry look, he thinks too much; such men are dangerous.” In the line just prior, Caesar said he would rather be around men who were fat, suggesting that it was a sign of contentment, where leanness was equated with dissatisfaction and strife.

Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus. Our Old Testament scripture today was from the book of Leviticus. The third book of the Bible follows Genesis which tells us of the beginning, Exodus gives us the laws, so what is left? Leviticus from the word itself tells us that it has something to do with the Levites, the priests of the Israelites. Just as Exodus gives us the laws, Leviticus tells us how to practice the laws, and in fact it is a very good foreshadowing of the laws we see explained in the New Testament, in the teachings of Jesus. Actually, if we look at the last half of the last verse we read in chapter 19 today, we see part of what Jesus gives us as the Greatest Commandment. Leviticus 19:18b “but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: …” Those are the same words used by Jesus later in Matthew 22:39 when he says the second commandment is “to love your neighbor as yourself.” The only thing he cites as better is to love God with all of your heart and soul and mind.

It seems like each week there is a puzzle of how to put the suggested scriptures together. I am sure there are lots of ways to do it, and yet there always seem to be one or two things that stand out. The commandments or rules or more so the behaviors that are being mentioned in both the Leviticus and the Matthew scripture are similar in what they are not about. I need to go off track a bit to get to my point. I am not one who likes war movies. Perhaps one of my least favorite classes to substitute for is social studies when the class is in middle of a war movie. In particular, I do not like to watch the barbarian actions of things like the movies: 300, Gladiators, Troy, or Spartacus to name a just a few. I mentioned Julius Caesar earlier and that has enough battle scenes to make me cringe.

See, what was going on in the area and the times that the Israelites lived is not really clear until you go to the words that Jesus spoke in Matthew. He tells the people on the Mountain and us that we must do more than what we are told in the laws of Moses. He says that an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is not enough. Those rules were given as an upgrade from what had been. In the days of those movies that I mentioned: 300, Gladiators, Troy and such. Revenge wasn’t an eye for an eye. It was a city for an eye. It was a country for a brother. It was complete annihilation for being wronged. There was no ability to negotiate. Honor didn’t allow them to walk away. So we can see how the rules given in Leviticus were in stark contrast to the barbarian ways of the people that the Israelites lived near.

The rules laid down in the 10 Commandments and the rules outlined and explained in this chapter of Leviticus were fair and just rules. The God of Israel/ our God wanted the people to do right by each other, just as we are to do right by each other today in our time. They were to pay their workers what they were due and on time; they were to leave gleanings for the poor to gather after harvest; they were to deal well with each other and even to the point that they did not favor the poor, but they were to be just and right with all thing. This whole point reinforces the idea that the law of the land before this time was to just do whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted and that the fastest, strongest, shrewdest person would always wins. And how does this bode today?

Fast forward a few years to Ancient Rome. Go to the times of the Caesars. They have a democracy, but things aren’t always so fair for everyone, either. Not all of the rules of their days are as just as they could be. Along comes a young man from Galilee, Jesus and as he gathers his disciples and others around himself on that Mountain outside of the city, he begins to explain to them some ideas about how to take those 10  Commandments issued by Moses and the rules followed by the Levites just a little bit further. Last week we learned that Jesus said even if we think of murdering or coveting, it is as good as doing it. Not only are we to hold back from killing or stealing or witnessing falsely, we aren’t even supposed to plan it or plot it or even think it.

As tough as all of those ideas are, what Jesus says in the scripture we read for today takes all of what he said earlier even another step further. The scripture today says that when we are wronged, instead of retaliating, we should turn the other cheek. Not only do we lose the idea of wiping out the entire city when we are wronged, now we don’t even get an eye for an eye. Jesus, in the message for today pushes things almost beyond our ability to understand. He says that if someone is trying to steal from us, we should just hand over what they ask for. I guess if we are in a big city and are about to be mugged, it might be a good idea. The authorities usually advise that if you cooperate, with a mugger, you aren’t as likely to get hurt.

This reminds me of a story from when I was teaching in Montpelier. We had a graduating class of 2, and they wanted to go on a senior trip to Washington, D.C. As it was there was a group of retired people from Gackle taking a trip to DC through their bank and the two seniors were able to get in on that trip. The point of the story is that one night after they checked into their rooms a couple of the women decided they needed something and had noticed a drug store on the corner near the motel and decided to go on their own to get whatever it was they needed. On the way back to the motel, they were stopped by a mugger and told to hand over their purses. Well, if you know anything about stubborn women who grew up in either of the Dakotas, you can guess how this story turned out. The women made it back to their rooms with their purses and their purchases and the mugger was sent on his way with nothing.

No Jesus doesn’t say we should hold on to our purse or coat as tightly as we can. His advice is to hand it over. He says if someone strikes us on one cheek, turn so they can do the same on the other. These almost seem like we are supposed to let others just walk all over us. How do we live in a capitalistic society where it is important to work hard and try to get ahead if we just let others walk all over us? What Jesus is trying to tell us is that when you react with kindness, with humble offerings, you often change the attitude of those who are plotting and planning the evil.

Jesus doesn’t give us the old adage of keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. No, Jesus says love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. And, I am pretty sure he doesn’t mean for us to pray for our enemies by asking God to make them better people. Jesus means that we are to really pray for them. Again, this is not an easy thing. Jesus sort of challenges us when he says that greeting your friends and family are so easy that even the tax collectors and Gentiles are able to do that. He asks us to do more.

Jesus says God makes the sun to rise on all people and also sends rain to all people. In other words, God sends goodness to all people. So, if we are serious about this desire to walk in God’s ways, we have to be willing to do good things for all people, even those who aren’t so nice to us. We need to be willing to put ourselves out there for those who might not be the ones offering the first handshake. I am willing to say it won’t always be easy, but it is what is asked. And we may just find that the more we are willing to follow Jesus directions, the easier it will be to walk in his ways and the closer we can come to being like him. Amen!

Good and Gracious God: we come to you today with hearts full of wonder about how we can ever really be like you. We so want to be able to take revenge on those who do us wrong. We want to take our purses and beat those who try to grab them away from us. But we know that is not what you tell us to do. You ask us to give up our coats to those in the cold. You ask us to offer our food to the hungry. Mostly you ask us to love, even to love those who don’t seem so loveable. Help us Lord; help us to do your will not only when it is easy, but also when it is hard. Now we ask that you would bless all those who are gathered here today, bless those who are listening through the tape ministry. Be with those away from us for time with family or for whatever reason, bring them home again safely to us. Be with all of those that we have listed in our concerns, and hear us Lord as we each offer up our own silent prayers….Now hear us Lord as we pray together the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray….Our Father…Amen.

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