You may listen to Mother Johnson's sermon here.
I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone 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.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
It’s often said that the Sermon on the Mount is such a tough set of teachings that modern preachers tend to soft-pedal it. We will be tempted, subtly, to turn Jesus’s teachings into something a little bit easier to live up to. Turn the other cheek? Jesus didn’t mean that, and we can’t do that, and it can be hard even to talk to each other as though we believed Jesus wanted us to think about doing that. So the temptation on Sunday morning is to ease away from the Sermon on the Mount. Instead of the Sermon on the Mount, in fact, we are more likely to give you the Equivocation in the Pulpit.
Well, I’ve come up with a great solution. I can’t bear to soft-pedal this Gospel, so I’m going to suggest that we just skip right ahead to next week’s Gospel and talk about that one. Bear with me: this might work.
Next week, we are going to hear about something that happens on a mountain that is much lovelier to contemplate: the Transfiguration. Next week, in Matthew’s Gospel, we will hear about how Jesus took Peter and James and John up on a mountain, and suddenly he became radiant. His face shone like the sun, and his garments became gleaming white. And Moses and Elijah appeared with him, and they had some kind of mysterious conversation. Peter liked the experience so much he proposed building tents: “Lord,” he said, “it is good for us to be here.” He could see Jesus as Jesus had never been seen before. Yes, it may have raised many questions for the disciples to see their Lord transfigured. In fact, it filled them with fear when the heavens open and a voice declared “This is my Son, the Beloved.” But we know that they were overcome by the holiness of the Son of God, and that this was a picture of Jesus they returned to later, after the resurrection, as they tried to explain who Jesus was. It gave them the faith to bear with what came later.
Well, as I’ve said, that was a much nicer mountain than the one we are faced with this week. But maybe we should think of this week’s mountain experience as a transfiguration, too. Maybe this week, as Jesus goes up on a mountain and turns around to speak to the disciples, maybe Jesus sees them transfigured. Maybe before Jesus could speak the way he did, urging them to do seemingly impossible things, maybe the heavens opened for Jesus and he heard a voice saying, “These are my beloved children. Tell them who they really are.”
Maybe Jesus could see, when he looked at his disciples and at the crowds of followers far below them, that their faces were shining with the glory of God. And maybe their garments, dusty from the journey, seemed to him to be glowing and pure. Maybe Jesus got a glimpse of what they could be as the children of God. Perfect as God is perfect.
And maybe it was that transcendent understanding of his own disciples that led him to speak to them as he did. Maybe he saw that right now, right here on earth, there could be visions of human life that revealed us—you and me—to be the children of God. Maybe for a vision like that you would go the extra mile. Maybe for a vision like that you would forgive when forgiveness seemed impossible. Maybe it was so overpowering to see the blessedness of the peacemakers and the poor in spirit and the cursed and the reviled, that if you saw that vision of blessedness you would have the courage to speak, to urge others to do what they could never imagine doing.
Maybe it made sense to him, when he saw us all looking so resplendent, that we could love each other through the darkness and the violence and the bad faith and the fear. Of course! The sun shines and the rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous. And so does the resplendence of God. So does the hope of transfiguration. So does the hope that we might love beyond measure, beyond propriety, beyond good sense.
That’s what brings us all here this morning, really, isn’t it? That hope that we can live a transfigured life? And I know Jesus saw us hoping when he looked upon his disciples and that crowd in the distance. I know he sees it still. He could say this to us on that mountain, and he can say it through our timid pulpits: love your enemies. That’s really what you were made for. Just as the Father made the sun and the rain to fall upon the earth, he made you to love.
And when Jesus he saw that, he saw what we would need from him to be able to maintain this wild faith. He saw that we could do it if he did it first, if he died for us and rose for us and fed us with his body and his blood. He saw that we would need to draw together as the church to live this mystery. We would need the Holy Spirit. He saw that we would need to hesitate, and equivocate, that we would confuse forgiveness with resentment and self-punishment. He saw that we would misuse these teachings as reasons not to act against injustice. But he saw something about us on that mountain that would give him the courage to work with us. Something that would make us able to bear these teachings and live with their impossible demands. He saw that once in a while some of us would shine through and glow and live as the children of God.
Whatever he saw in us on that mountain, my brothers and sisters, it gave him an unfathomable patience. It gave him every moment of every day since, to live in us and show us what forgiveness is and teach us what it means to love those who don’t love us. It made him willing that we should become his own body, his own hands reaching out in healing and consolation, his own words speaking God’s very truth.
No, it isn’t easy to take the Sermon on the Mount as our instruction for living. No, it isn’t easy to urge another person to forgive when forgiveness seems impossible. A thousand cautions spring to mind, some of them very good ones. Some forms of love look more like setting boundaries. Some forms of forgiveness are only possible from a safe distance. Sometimes we have to stand next to someone stronger than we are before we can learn what it really means to turn the other cheek. But real love is always the truth. The glowing light of God’s love is always there, waiting to transfigure us and the situations in which we struggle.
Jesus saw that and it gave him the willingness to trust us with these teachings. It gave him the confidence to shine on us when we are righteous and when we are unrighteous. It gave him the confidence to be lifted up on the cross, to place himself in our hands as bread and wine to feed us every day.
We are timid and slow, but Jesus was and is sure of us. He was and is sure of himself in us and with us. Brothers and sisters, let us be sure of him as we bear with one another.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
23 February 2014
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia