Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Matthew 5:38-48

In the liturgical calendar, today is what we call “Transfiguration Sunday.” It is always the Sunday right before we head into Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent. It is the account in which Jesus goes up the mountain with Peter, James, and John. All are transfigured preparing the way for the work that is to come.   

Still, it is the seventh Sunday after Epiphany. And I’m still sitting with the Sermon on the Mount and those hard sayings of Jesus about how to live in the day-to-day. It occurs to me that they are worth staying with a bit longer as we head into this new season.   

On Wednesday, Isaiah and I – and likely Lefty if need be – will spend the better part of the day imposing ashes and reminding ourselves and others of one of the greatest truths of all.  Remember that you are dust, and to dust you are returning. Few things are truer. Next Sunday, we’ll head into the wilderness with Jesus as he makes his final trek to Jerusalem, the cross, and the grave.  

It’s a season about death and we are surrounded by it. It’s sobering, the road we are all on.  If only we could remember that, it might change our days. What we deem most important.  What we would say and not say; do and not do.

We are dust, made of clay, imperfect, fragile, vulnerable and dispensable. It is the one common denominator. Everything around us has an expiration date: people, jobs, health, relationships, church, buildings, ministries. All of it, sooner or later, will be no more.

The only lasting thing is how we treat one another, how we think about others, love them and care for them, inspire them, sacrifice for them, and how we make them feel. If somehow, by the grace of God, we do it just right – it is passed along over and over and over again.   

We forget sometimes, I think, that the world will go on without us. It will and it must. We forget that nothing is guaranteed; that we will not take anything with us. We forget that what truly matters at the end of the day is not what we get and take for ourselves, but what we give away. Loving and healing and living beyond ourselves is the way.   

Just this month, I have sat with two different sets of family and friends, grieving the loss of their beloved. Both were just 31 – too young to die. From everything I heard about both of them, they were the salt of the earth. They were the seasoning, good and good company, that special breed that only seems to come along every now and then, who recognize early on what life is all about and how to live it out and live it well.   

This morning, I want to take us back to the mountain and those sayings of Jesus, who himself died all too young. Jesus said (you have heard it said by those of old), “You shall not murder… but 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 are liable to the council … So when offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you – not whether you have something against him or her – but if you think your brother or sister has something against you – leave your gift at the altar and go first. Be reconciled to your brother or sister.”

You have heard it said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you, do not resist an evil doer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” But as your pastor, I’m going to highly recommend that you don’t try that one just in case they didn’t learn the lesson in Sunday School.  

You have heard it said, “You should love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes the sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  

For if you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete (holy), set apart to be light in the world, so also are you?” [1]

In these days filled with so much angst, so much division and contempt, so much anger and noise, pain and attacks, we hear these hard and near impossible instructions in order to remind ourselves of who we are and what we are to be about.  

These words are not given as a checklist of do’s and don’ts because who among us can actually follow all of them – or any of them – for very long? Even the original 10+ were near impossible, and now this. Still, they are given to remind us that we all live on Mercy Street – every one of us. We walk up and down Mercy Street all day long, every day.  

The season of Lent reminds us of this truth. And the great depth of God’s love. What was impossible for us, God has done in Jesus Christ.  

John Howard Yoder writes, “In saying this Jesus was not a foolish dreamer, spinning out futile hopes for a better world, thinking that if only we keep smiling everything will turn out all right, with our opponents turned into friends and our sacrifices all repaid. He knew full well the cost of such unlimited love. He foresaw the suffering it would mean, first for himself and then for his followers. But there was no other way for him to take, no other way worthy of God. Jesus’ teaching here is not a collection of good human ideas; it is his divinely authoritative interpretation of the law of God.” [2]

And we might be asking ourselves, how can we do it? How can I possibly go about that?  

Does Jesus not understand what we go through? How cruel and unjust the world is? How people can be, how hateful? Yes, he does. Does he understand what it’s like to be betrayed and denied, wounded in body, mind, and spirit? Yes, he does. Does Jesus understand that people might not like you when you haven’t done anything at all – just showed up? Yes, he does. It’s complicated.  

Loving enemies is difficult and complicated. It’s complex. There is not a one-size-fits-every person and every circumstance. Love is a multi-faceted thing and needs to be understood and reflected upon. Love is expressed in variety of ways – not just one or two. Sometimes it is quiet and gentle, but other times it demands truth that appears harsh and hard to bear.  

Turning the other cheek might very well require helping someone to look closely at the first cheek before they decide that it’s ok to slap. So they can see it’s the face of a real human. And sometimes, the only way they will learn is when someone loves them enough to go deeper. Teach them. Explain. It’s complicated.  

We set out on this discourse which might make us feel so inadequate. Like we are setting ourselves up for failure, for injury, more work, and greater harm. Actually setting ourselves up for failure. Who wants that? “Bless those who curse you, do good to those that hate.” [3] 

Like it or not, my friends, this is what it means to walk with God. And it is God’s imperative that we should try. Imagine the kind of world there would be if we really did try to understand and do.  

For we are reminded that all of our faithfulness comes down to this: love God, your neighbor (including all of creation and including our enemies), those we find easy, those we find difficult, and those who find us difficult. Because we have been washed in the waters of baptism and there can be no separation of these two: God and Neighbor.  

May we continue to stay right here for a while. May our morning, noon, and night become so infused by the presence of the Holy Spirit that we discover power beyond ourselves. That we discover the strength to love and the courage to endure.  

That we die to those things we need to carry no longer. So that we might truly live. Once and for all times.     

[1] Matthew 5:46-48
[2] John Howard Yoder, Living the Disarmed Life What is our cross,
[3] Luke 6:28