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Tree of Life

Matthew 5: 21-22; 38-48

21 ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister,* you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult* a brother or sister,* you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell* of fire.
 
38 ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well;
 
41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give 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.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so 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. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,* what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. I got up yesterday and started to put the finishing touches on today’s message. This is Consecration Sunday. The day we commit our time, talent and treasure to the mission and ministries of JMPC. Then I got a text from my son in Milwaukee. “What is going on in Squirrel Hill? People are getting shot!” Then I checked the news. It was all about Tree of Life. A guy with a semiautomatic assault rifle and three handguns had murdered eleven people in their synagogue while they worshiped. One family was there for a brys. The circumcision and naming of an eight-day old baby. Why did this man do this? Because they were Jews. And he hated Jews. And he believed that all Jews must die. This in the United States in 2018. In Pittsburgh. The country and city where I live. I was and am still outraged. I felt the need to respond. So yesterday I reached out to the local Jewish community and invited them to organize a joint worship service. I also sent an email of condolences to the Tree of Life congregations. I posted a personal message on social media and one from this congregation as well. And now I need to encourage each of us to stand against hate. I need to proclaim what Jesus taught were the greatest commandments. Love God. Love each other. That it is a sin to believe that another person, an image bearer of God, is somehow inferior and thus eligible for elimination. Just because they are of a different faith. Or a different race. Or from a different place. Why? This man who murdered those eleven people was an anti-Semitic firebrand who was willing to kill anyone who … what? Threatened him? How? What was the threat? What was he afraid of? Our world is a becoming a place where many are unwilling to live with people who disagree with them or are different from them. They are unwilling to abide even their presence. They seek ways to eliminate those who do not agree with or and are not like them. That was what Tree of Life was all about. That is fear. That is hate. That is sin. And this presents a problem. We, who profoundly disagree, who are horrified, who are angry, want to respond to those who think this way and do such things. We want to respond to the hate. But how? How do we respond in a way that does not make us just like them? How do we respond to hate in a way that is not hateful? Because if we fail at this, the world will continue to descend into a violent, chaotic, free for all. Hell on earth. How do we avoid that? We need to listen to Jesus! In our scripture reading this morning he teaches us three things.
  1. Do not match insult with insult.
  2. Do not match aggression with aggression.
  3. Respond to those who oppose you in a way that de-escalates.
 

Pretty simple … but almost impossibly difficult. Jesus’ words defy our human condition. Rabbi Jonathon Sachs describes why in his book, Not in God’s Name. I recommend it. He describes the human condition this way. Individually, humans are pretty vulnerable. So we form groups. These groups provide security. Such groups can defend against attack, maintain order and share resources. Within the group there is altruism, patriotism, courage, fidelity, obedience and sympathy. But as between groups, there is none of this. Between groups, we see our more basic instincts. Aggression, fear, anger, combativeness, a willingness to fight and inflict injury on others. Sachs describes it this way: Groups unite and divide. They divide and unite. Every group involves the coming together of multiple individuals to form a collective Us. But every Us is defined against a Them, the ones not like us. We need to defeat Them so our group will be safe. And that is OK because those not like us, Them, are inferior. Does any of this sound familiar? No? Take a look at Twitter. Facebook. Turn on cable news. What do we see? Chest pounding. Hate. Insults. Aggression. Is that not what we saw yesterday? A fearful white man convinced that the only way to save his group was to eliminate Them. He started out with hate. Went on to insults. Now finally with violence. What do we do in response? Do the same? I know what my visceral reaction was – and it was not pastoral. That is what makes Jesus’ lesson so hard. And here is the problem that Jesus identifies. We are all members of groups. We believe certain things that the group shares. These beliefs are a part of our identity. Part of who we are. Part of what the group stands for. So, if anyone threatens us, or our group, we take it as a personal attack. A threat to our group. Our immediate inclination is to respond in kind. A retaliatory attack on Them. Chest pounding. Hate. Insults. Aggression. Jesus says no! Jesus says stop it! He demands a different response. A hard one to satisfy.

  1. Do not match insult with insult.
  2. Do not match aggression with aggression.
  3. Respond to those who oppose you in a way that de-escalates.
 
Remain calm. Find a way to reach out. Respond with peace. Refuse to retaliate. That is what Jesus teaches in our scripture reading. How the heck to we do that? It means we must give up our hate. It means freeing ourselves from the power our opponents exercise over us with their hate. That power our opponents use to goad us into acting just like them. We take that power away from them by giving up our hate.
Listen to Paul from Romans 12:
17Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves …  20No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
I love that line. … for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads. Giving up our hate takes their power away from them. That is not to say we do not confront those who hate us and would have us eliminated. That is not to say we do not oppose those we disagree with. That is not to say that we don’t stand up for what we believe. We are not called to passivity. But we are called to do something. Sachs puts it this way: The Sermon on the Mount tells us to love our enemies. That is a supremely beautiful idea but it is not easy. Moses offers a more livable solution. Help you enemy. You don’t have to love him, but you do have to assist him. … A decent society will be one in which enemies do not allow their rancor and animosity to prevent them from coming to one another’s aid when they need help. When someone is in trouble, act. Do not stop to ask whether they are friend or foe. That is what Jesus is talking about. When Jesus says we are to provide food, water, shelter, clothing, care and hospitality to those who need it, he does not say we are need only do it for those like us. We are to act, and not first ask if they are friend or foe. Which, believe it or not, brings us to a point I wanted to make in my original message. The scripture reading was Marks’s telling of the feeding of the 5,000. You know the story. A huge crowd surrounds Jesus and the 12. This crown is from all over Judea, Trans Jordan and what we would call Lebanon. They are a diverse group. Some Greek, some Jews, Some gentile. Not a harmonious bunch. They are not alike, and they do not know each other. It is late in the day and the 12 are afraid. Afraid that the people are going to need food. The 12 don’t know them. The 12 are uncomfortable and want to be rid of these folks. There is going to be trouble ones they all get “hangry”. Their response is to ask Jesus to send them away. But Jesus says no. There is a better way. If what they need is food, give them some. Don’t send them away, share what you have. The long story made short is that the disciples do just that, and apparently the diverse crowd follows suit. Everyone is sharing with everyone else. Even with folks they might otherwise not much care for. No hate. No insults. No aggression. Just sharing. And there is peace. There is no doubt that we live in a dangerous world. We are simply called by Jesus to not make it more dangerous. And maybe make it a bit better. Maybe if we share. Maybe if we respond to hate in a different way.
I read this last evening in the on-line Atlantic Magazine. When Rabbi Joseph Miller learned of the Squirrel Hill massacre, less than a mile from his own pulpit, he ordered the doors of his synagogue locked. Despite his congregants’ terror that they would be next, they recited the mi sheberach. They didn’t pray for their own protection; they prayed for the healing of others. They prayed for the healing of others. Jesus would include the healing of this Synagogue murderer. Certainly, his soul is in need of healing. All that is hard, but it is the Jesus way. It is called grace. Why should we act that way? Because God acts that way toward us. God responds to our hate with a Savior. To God, no one is irredeemable. No one is disposable. No one is inferior. Jesus says we are to act the same. Is there some way to connect all this with our contributions to the ministries and missions of JMPC? I think so. The contributions we consecrate today can and must be used to reach out in the communities surrounding us to meet people’s needs. We do much of that now, but we need to explore what more we can do. With our contributions maybe we can do our part in making the world a more peaceful place. For Us. For Them. Isn’t that the goal? Isn’t that what we are called to do? Isn’t that living the Jesus way? I think it is.
Pray with me this prayer written by Pastor Jill Duffield of Presbyterian Outlook.
Lord, we know your power, your promises and your presence, but on days like today when your chosen people are gunned down in your holy house we question everything we thought we knew about you, about humanity, about ourselves. How can such hate fester and plot, destroy and kill? How can those created in your image and called good commit such horrendous acts? How have we gotten to this place? Where do we go from here? Lord, help us. Help us rise up and resist evil with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. Help us confront the hate within and without that is overtaking our land. Comfort, O comfort your people, Lord. We beg for an outpouring of compassion and love to overwhelm the scourge of violence besetting our communities. May we relentlessly speak up for and reach out to our Jewish brothers and sisters and all of those reeling in fear as they simply go about their daily living. Grant us the courage, the will and the stamina to live every day with faith, hope, mercy, kindness and justice until crying and mourning and death and hate are no more. We pray in the name of our Savior, a Jewish man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. Amen.



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