February 1, 2015
Mark 1:21-28
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111


Epiphany 8 | Ordinary Time 8

from the book
Sermons For Advent, Christmas And Epiphany


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I like the first part of this story about Jesus. All those blessings, and that neat parable about the salt of the earth, and the light of the world. It makes me feel good inside. But now it gets difficult. Let me put this in terms that I can understand.

The first time I ever remember hating anyone was in the third grade. The kid's name was Les. Les moved into town part way through the year and from the beginning we had trouble. On the first day, I received a note during spelling. The note read, "After school. You're dead!" The note was signed, "Les." This was not good news, as Les stood about six-foot tall and weighed in the area of 200 pounds. In the third grade! Fortunately, I had to stay a few minutes late after school that afternoon, and by the time I left, so had everyone else. I found several new paths home and managed to avoid Les for over a week. Until the inevitable happened. I forgot.

I walked out of school one afternoon and crossed the street towards home, when out from behind a bush stepped Les. A huge crowd suddenly showed up. They all apparently knew what was going to happen and didn't want to miss it. Les took one step toward me and I took one step back. I negotiated. I asked why this was happening. Neither God nor Les would give me a reason. Les took another step toward me and I took another step back. I looked at the audience and smiled a smile that was supposed to say "I'm not worried," you know, to look cool. But the look in my eyes apparently blew the image and everyone laughed. Big old Les took another step toward me and I took another step back. And I tripped over the fire hydrant and fell backwards, rolling down the ditch next to the road, and landed in the mud. It was hilarious. At least that's what they all thought. Les hadn't laid a hand on me but had destroyed every ounce of pride, self-esteem and dignity in my body. Everybody laughed and went home, by way of Les' house where they all got ice cream first. Oh, how I hated that kid. She was the meanest woman I have ever met in my life!

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I sat there in the mud thinking that life couldn't be any worse. I was wrong. Two weeks later, while my mother and I were planning my upcoming birthday party, she said, "Why don't you invite the new girl in your class to your party?" I gave every reason I could think of not to invite her, I even told the truth! But in the end I had to invite her. That's what I was told. So I did the only thing an honest, healthy third grader could do. I lied. I never invited Les to the party. I told Mom that Les was going out of town and couldn't come. It was a week after the party, which, by the way was one of the grandest events ever held in Beardstown with the entire third grade class of Beard School attending (except for one), when I went with Mom to the store. We were walking down the cereal aisle when we met Les' mother. My mother said, "I'm so sorry Les missed the party." I prayed. Les' mom answered, "What party?" I prayed real hard. It didn't help.

I will spare you the details of our ride home, and the next few weeks of confinement, but just let me say that I have never hated anyone quite like I hated that third grade girl. I still occasionally have dreams of getting even.

The sermon was going strong. Everyone had found a soft spot to sit, and had gotten the children settled down enough to pay attention to what Jesus was saying. Except for this one guy who came wandering in late. He had missed all the "Blessed are thous," and was obviously not in a good mood. He made so much racket finding a place to sit that Jesus finally stopped preaching, looked over at the guy, and asked, "Do you have a problem?" The guy almost exploded. He apologized for being late and disturbing everyone, but said he had just about had it up to here! It seems that on his way to the hillside he had been stopped by a Roman soldier. The soldier was traveling through the area and said that he wanted the guy to carry this big suitcase a mile down the road. To make it worse, after they had gone the mile, the soldier said that he really liked the guy's new coat, and wanted it for himself. The coat had been a gift from the man's wife, but now it was in the hands of some red-necked centurion who wouldn't appreciate fine weaving if it jumped out and bit him! This guy was furious.

And as he talked, the crowd became furious, too. It had happened to most all of them at one time or another. They all knew the laws. If a Roman stopped you and asked you to carry their bag a mile, you had to do it. You had no choice. They were Roman, you were not. And if a Roman stopped you and asked for your coat, you had to give it to them. Same rule. They were Roman, you were not. Jesus sat there and listened to one story after another as the crowd joined in what was fast becoming a top of the line gripe session. Finally, he jumped in and said "I'll tell you what. The next time some soldier stops you and asks you to carry their bag one mile, carry it two miles!" He had their attention. "And the next time one of them wants you to give them your coat, give it to them. Then take off your shirt and hand that to them, too. It will drive them nuts!" While they were still in shock, he kept talking, and in all honesty, this is where Jesus loses me.

He said "Love your enemies." He spent some time expanding on that idea, explaining that we should turn the other cheek instead of swinging back, and that we should give to others who take advantage of us and have no intention of giving back. He says that it is well and good to like those people who like you, and do things the way you want them done, but the real test of what you're made of is if you can like those people who just aren't likable, who do everything possible to push you away. Later on he even suggests that when we have parties it is more important to invite our enemies than our friends. I'm sure he wasn't talking about birthday parties. I am quite sure that someone like Les has to be the exception.

Hey, if you get your exceptions, I get mine! We all make them, don't we? We all remember Jesus' words about enemies, but we also know that there are some enemies that fall outside the rules. We all know full well that there are some enemies who really need to be ignored. We all know full well that there are some enemies who need to be put down, insulted and talked about over coffee down at the restaurant. We all know very well that there are some enemies who are so hopeless, we have no choice but to go to war with them. So we put out our arsenal of words, stares, stealth bombers and laser-guided smart bombs and do what we know must be done. There are exceptions aren't there.

It has been painful to watch my daughter learn about the exceptions. She has heard me talk at home and preach at church about forgiving our enemies, and turning the other cheek, only to ask me about that when I make some comment about that obnoxious old woman who keeps telling everyone that my preaching is a waste of time. My daughter asks me about that "forgive our enemies" talk, and I try to explain to her about "exceptions" but she hasn't seemed to catch on. Until now. She is now in the sixth grade and is beginning to understand. Now I see her making the exceptions that I have made. She understands what Jesus said, she has heard it in Sunday school and at home. But she now also understands that there are exceptions. I am sorry to see that.

The crowd on the hillside was as confused as I am. Can he be saying what it sounds like he is saying? Sure, the law says we have to tolerate these enemies, but love them? I mean, he is suggesting we get careless here. To turn the other cheek to an enemy gives a pretty good chance we are going to get whopped on it. That would be a second time, and that would be foolish. If we give to anyone who asks, and loan without expecting to get anything in return, doesn't that put us in a rather awkward position? Doesn't he realize that is going to make us look like a bunch of clowns? We are going to get pushed over fire hydrants, and stripped of our coats, and we are going to spend the better part of some days carrying someone else's suitcases who knows where! What will people think?

There must be exceptions here. Can Jesus really be asking us to love all our enemies, even big old Leslie? Does he really expect us to do that?