Saturday, February 18, 2017

Loving the World into Shape: Reflections on Matthew 5.38-48 (RCL Proper 7A, 19 Feb 2017)

Loving the World into Shape
Reflections on Matthew 5.38-48

RCL Proper 7A
19 February 2017

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church

                  5.38 [Jesus said to his disciples,] “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.  42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

                  43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’  44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

            Bill Burnett became Archbishop of Cape Town in 1974.  Opposition to apartheid was growing in South Africa and throughout the world.  Although the Anglican Church in South Africa was not of one mind about apartheid, Archbishop Burnett was an early and undaunted opponent of apartheid.  His views made him persona non grata in many government and social circles.

            But the Archbishop believed that he could gain admittance to the corridors of power and influence government policy if he could learn to love the government.  Any government, after all, is made up of people, real human beings, with hopes and fears, joys and sorrows, successes and failures.

            So the Archbishop began to extend invitations to ministers, members of Parliament and others to join him for coffee or breakfast.  They would come expecting a lecture, but the Archbishop only wanted to talk about their families, their challenges and their personal lives.  Sometimes political matters raised their heads, but the Archbishop’s goal was to forge relationships.  These relationships, he hoped, might become the building blocks for a new South Africa.

            In 1981 Archbishop Burnett retired to live in a South Africa still under an apartheid regime.  But five years later, in 1986, Desmond Tutu became the first black African Archbishop of Cape Town.  Two years later, in 1988, Nelson Mandela was released from prison and, six years after his release, was elected President of South Africa.  Four months after Mandela’s election in April of 1994, Bill Burnett died, having lived to see some of the fruits of loving the government.

            We often confuse ‘liking’ with ‘loving’.  To like someone is to find that person attractive or pleasant or some other quality that we find agreeable or suitable.  But to love someone means making a conscious commitment to care and nurture that person so that he or she can become fully alive as God has envisioned that person to be and to become.  To love inevitably involves self-giving on the part of the one who loves.  To love someone may bring risks because the one who loves must open herself or himself to the possibility of transformation.

            Forgive me for saying what may seem self-obvious.  The foundation of love is something you and I learned in kindergarten or earlier:  Do unto others as you would have them to unto you.  We hear Jesus say to his disciples, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’  These words are so simple to say, yet so difficult to live.

            This is, however, what Jesus asks of us in today’s gospel in a series of counter-intuitive and costly expectations.

            i)  Violence only begets more violence.  So resist evil with compassion and generosity rather than with a raised and clenched fist.

            ii)  Look upon those whom we are tempted to name as ‘enemies’ with the eyes of God who only sees ones for whom God made the heavens and the earth and for whom God gives God’s very self in Jesus.

            iii)  Seek the genuine good for every human being and ‘draw the circle wide’ when setting the boundaries of our neighbourhood.

            iv)  Be fearless in embodying God’s love for us and for all creation --- even when it may mean self-sacrifice and the censure of others.

            We know --- and God knows --- that we shall not always live up to these expectations.  But this knowledge is not a counsel of despair but an invitation to growth.  This world is not yet what God would have it be.  Why this is so, I do not know.  But what I do know is this:  God invites and empowers us to be agents, co-workers with God, in loving this world into its proper Christ-like shape.

            “Therefore, just as [our] heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also [we] must be complete.” [1]  Because, with God’s grace, we shall and the earth shall be filled with the glory of God.

[1] Matthew 5.48 (Common English Bible) alt.

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