A sermon on Matthew 5: 21-26, 38-48
Our scripture today asks us to, “be perfect as your father is perfect” wow! Not asking too much today, huh? As Delia said when looking over the scripture for this Sunday, this one really hits you! It doesn’t cut any corners, it lays it right out there, be perfect, don’t think bad things about others, don’t spread malicious gossip, don’t harbor feelings of anger, etc. love those who persecute you, be reconciled to those you have problems with, be perfect.
So far this year we have talked about becoming the beloved community, going to pieces without falling apart, finding beauty in our brokenness, and now we are talking about reconciliation, which, as we hear from the sermon on the mount is essential. We have been directed to reconcile with those who hurt us and as I prepared to write this sermon it occurred to me that reconciliation is best discovered through story.
Jesus gave us parables and examples of reconciliation over and over again. It is the prodigal son and the reconciling father, the father who forgives again and again, the father who, at the end of the story is not in the party with his reconciled son but is out in the courtyard with his son who refuses to be reconciled. Even in this refusal, the father is with him, waiting, entreating, calling him to reconcile. The older son in his anger and perception of injustice remains in the outer courtyard, something that Jesus likens in other parables to being cast out into the darkness where there will be gnashing of teeth.
It is the story of Jesus’ gentle words restoring a woman to community after she was brought out to be stoned; he asks for those who have no sin to throw the first stone. In their empathy, their awakened sense of connection with this woman who has sinned they cannot act. She is restored into community.
It is in Jesus permitting a woman who has sinned to wash his feet with her tears, allowing her to touch him as if nothing could be wrong, as if she had never done anything questionable but was and always would be, simply a beloved child of God, that she is restored.
It is in Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well and sending her back into community as the first evangelist that she is reconciled to her community. Over and over Jesus acts to reconcile us, to restore community, to uplift the outcast and the broken, to bring health and wholeness to those in need.
So I want to share with you a powerful story of reconciliation I discovered while searching for restorative justice information. I’ll post the video of this woman sharing her story later today on facebook, if you want to hear it in her words.
Anne Marie Hagan begins her story by saying, “In an ideal world, this never would have happened, but when you look at the fact that it did happen, aren’t I so blessed to be taken full circle? Plus I’m free, free from all the anger and the bitterness and the vengeance?“ Anne Marie looks defiantly and openly straight at the camera as she says this, something she could not do when all those years ago.
It was a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon when a neighbor and friend of the family walked into Anne Marie’s home wielding an axe. He brutally murdered their father and attacked Anne Marie herself before the attack was over. In the photo taken shortly thereafter Anne Marie stares blankly into the distance, disassociated and unseeing. As she talks about her life after the attack she states, “I was one mean, nasty individual, I was always being triggered back into the event.“
She was a woman living her own personal hell, one that crept into her ability to have empathy and compassion for others, one that made her life small and kept her focused on the man who killed her father. She was stuck in this place of pain, loss, and despair. “How long, oh Lord, How long,” the psalmist cries, “For 18 years Satan has kept this woman bound,” Jesus stated, isn’t it time for her to be free? For Anne Marie her freedom came after 17 years during which time she had prepared over an over to get some piece of vengeance on this man.
When his parole hearing came up, after 17 years in a mental institute, she attended meaning to shame him, to reduce him, to hurt him. But this did not happen. Something shifted when she was confronted with this man, his remorse, his brokenness, his frailty. As Anne Marie describes her impulse to reach out to this man whom she had spent so many years hating, how she had to “rush around the table, I just had to hug him, had to touch him,” as she talks about her heart being opened to him and empathy, compassion being restored to her, I can only imagine that the Spirit was there, enfolding them all, transforming them, changing everything. Seeing him again, in person, after all these years, her heart was opened, the rage and anger left her and she was no longer a victim but someone who had been victimized.
Anne Marie’s story reminds us that we can get stuck in the midst of trauma, we can get stuck in the midst of anger, hurt, and despair. While we may appear to move forward on the outside, some part of us can remain behind, stuck in events that shook our lives and from which we long to be freed.
So let’s look again at our scripture, specifically this word perfect. Be perfect Jesus says, as your Father is perfect. This perfection, what exactly is this? The Greek word that is used in this scripture is teleos. You might be familiar with the word teleology. It implies something a little different from perfection but rather a sort of completion, a wholeness, as well as a sense of destiny or purpose. Something that exhibits clear teleology demonstrates its purpose clearly, such as a shovel is clearly for digging and doesn’t have frills on it or a fancy design. It’s teleology is clear. If you use a shovel to dig dirt you have fulfilled its teleology. It is perfected, it is finished, a satisfied teleology.
Does our scripture read differently if Jesus is saying, hey, stop being so angry with one another, repeating traumas and injuries, let them go and be reconciled so that you may be whole and complete as your Father is whole and complete? So that your purpose may be satisfied as your Father’s purpose is.
Reconcile so that you might be who you were created to be, not a bent or twisted version, not angry and bitter, not seeking vengeance and acting in anger, but whole, healthy, completely and exactly as you were created to be, the loving and creative person God made you to be. Reconcile because to not do so is to remain stuck in the past, owned by the past rather than informed by the past.
Reconcile, be restored, repent, all of these words suggest a return; a return to wholeness. We have this choice, this freedom, to step outside the grace of God, and sometimes we do, and sometimes it happens without our even being aware of it. Sometimes events are so shocking, disturbing or painful that our very brain structure changes and it’s hard to find restoration, to find health and wholeness again. It’s hard to find peace again. We have been taught that this peace will come when the scales are balanced, when we have our pound of flesh, but Jesus tells us this is not so, he tells us to forgo our just vengeance. Wholeness, health, being restored to our true purpose, our teleos, occurs through reconciliation, not through balancing the scales, not through exacting our vengeance.
The world tells us to seek justice, to get our due, but Jesus tells us to reconcile, to reconnect. Many of us grew up watching westerns and other TV shows where the finale, the thing that made everything all right again, was killing the bad guy. As Anne Marie discovered pain that isn’t transformed is transmitted, it’s passed on and on. It infects all parts of our lives and creates disharmony and disruption.
There is an old Jewish tale about a learned Rabbi who examined his students one day asking them, How do you know when the dawn has come? His students were eager to please and they offered many ideas, perhaps it is when it is light enough you can see the difference between a cow and a horse, one suggested, the Rabbi said, no, no, “is it when it is light enough that you can see the difference between a man and a woman passing on the street,” another asked, no, no, the Rabbi said, “is it when you can see the difference between a tree on the horizon and a hedge” one asked hopefully, no, no, said the Rabbi.
The dawn comes when you can look into the eyes of a stranger and see there a brother, a sister, then the dawn will have come. We need one another to be whole, to perfect our teleos.
Last week I saw a revolutionary study in addiction medicine. It reflected a new paradigm, one that I knew intuitively was right even before I read the evidence because I have seen it lived out again and again. This new study looked at the rats that were used so many years ago to study cocaine dependence and someone wondered if they would have the same results if the rats were not in isolation but were in happy, healthy communities. They recreated the same test, only this time the rats were not isolated but kept in communal groups, they were happy and well fed, they even had toys to play with. Even though these rats in community had the same access to drugs, they did not use them. This sparked further study and it began to appear that addiction is a disease created less by chemical hooks in our brain and more by isolation and disconnection from meaningful relationship. This makes a lot of sense to me as most of the youth I have worked with who were successful developed very strong relationships with each other and with staff, they reconciled with family members. When we are most unlovable, that is when we need love the most.
Reconciliation requires reconnection, it requires presence, that we would show up, emotionally, physically, spiritually with one another and we do not withdraw when the going gets tough. This is how we begin to foster open, honest, genuine relationship, by staying present during tough times, through hard truths.
It has been said that our nation is not ready for reconciliation between races because we are not ready to hear the hard truths. I don’t know if that is true. For some people it may be, perhaps not for others. What I am sure of is that when we cannot stay present, cannot hear the truth, the experience, of others, cannot bear to hear the impact that we have had on their lives, then we have silenced them and we cannot have a healthy relationship, we cannot be reconciled with those we will not listen to, with those we will not stay present to.
And I say this knowing that allowing another’s truth, another’s story, to impact us, to touch us, will change us. We might feel impelled to act, to stop the pain and loss, if we hear these stories. We may be drawn into compassion, to suffer with those who are oppressed. I certainly hope so. Knowing another’s story will not leave us where we began. It will change us.
It has always been easier to not hear, to not be touched, to withdraw. Fear suggests we do just that. Love insists we’d better not. Love insists we must draw near to one another. Love insists we hear the hard stories, look into one another’s eyes and let ourselves be touched, let ourselves be changed.
If we would reconcile we must commit to staying present, allowing our hearts to be open to the mystery, our minds to remain curious, that we might see the image of God in one another. Reconciliation is unleashed through signs and stories as we meet the other, look them in the eyes and see a brother, see a sister. When we are willing to see them exactly as they are, to hear their stories without any need to deny their reality. When our hearts are changed and we are impelled to act, to love, to befriend, to defend. Fear would have us be small, harden our hearts, protect ourselves.
Love insists we’d better not.