Pastor Emily Hartner:
In case you ever wondered: I do not play the piano.
It’s not because I didn’t take piano lessons–I took them for four years, from the time I was in the first grade until the time I was in the fifth grade.
It’s not because I didn’t like extracurricular activities–I was involved in all sorts of things outside of school.
It’s not because I don’t like music–I love music, always have.
The reason I don’t play the piano today is because I quit.
And the reason I quit is because I have NO fond memories of playing the piano.
My practice times were both frustrating and miserable for this perfectionist because I could never get it right the first time around.
I don’t know what the difference was between something like piano and something like ballet (which I took for twelve years without a problem), but by the time I was in the fifth grade I was begging my mom to allow me to quit.
She agreed, with one stipulation: I had to be the one to tell my teacher.
She thought this would be difficult for me, but let me tell you–I had no problem telling my teacher.
It was far easier and preferable for me to give up trying than to fail consistently.
After it was all said and done, everyone in my family was happier.
We all have things we just sort of give up on because they’re too difficult, right?
(Please don’t tell me I’m the only one!)
Or times we stop trying because we’re simply tired of failing to reach an impossible state of perfection?
Well, in light of Jesus’ sayings in Matthew today, I’ve got to admit, it sure is tempting to quit trying.
Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew is relentless, is he not?
Just when we think we might get a break from his insistence on following the law to a tee (which we’ve heard for three weeks now), he comes out with this zinger: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
And, as if that weren’t bad enough, it seems that we’re to understand perfection as not simply following the law, but exceeding the law.
He says we’re supposed to turn the other cheek, go the second mile, love our enemies, and therefore be perfect.
I get loving your neighbor, but loving your enemy is a whole other ballgame.
Is Jesus just setting us up for failure here? Why even try?
That is the question, isn’t it?
Why should we try, especially when we feel as if our rights have been violated.
We have very few examples today of this perfection Jesus is talking about.
We have plenty of exceptions to this perfection–excuses for why we fall short of such perfection.
“Yes, but she started is.”
“Yes, but he hit me first.”
“Yes, but I have to go out of my way to help this person I don’t even like.”
We all have our excuses of falling short of the godly perfection that Jesus requires and and valid reasons for doing so.
Not one of us wants to feel walked-upon or taken advantage of.
But I also don’t think Jesus is promoting becoming doormats here.
For one thing, Jesus is exaggerating here to make a point.
We know this because of what he says about giving your cloak in addition to your coat.
The setting for this particular example is that of a courtroom, where a person could legally sue someone else for his coat.
That’s when Jesus says to give your cloak in addition to your coat.
The coat here actually refers to a nightshirt-like main garment.
The cloak was a toga-like outer garment that, according to laws in both Exodus and Deuteronomy, could not be legally taken.
If you give your coat and your cloak, you’re left standing naked in the courtroom, which Jesus certainly didn’t want to happen.
We aren’t literally supposed to give all of our garments away, but we are supposed to release the tight grip we hold on what we insist is “ours”–and along with that, our need for vengeance and retaliation, and our reluctance to go out of our way for anyone or anything.
How are we supposed to do it when we’re so scared–rightfully so–that we’ll be used?
Thankfully, this same example of giving both your coat and your cloak also gives us some suggestions for how we might do this.
What the example implies–in the ability to give up both garments–is a certain amount of confidence or security in one’s God-given rights so as not to insist on, or cling to, particular so-called legal rights, whether they be an understanding of what’s “fair” or, as is the case with example, what is “legal.”
It suggests that the core of our self-worth lies with God’s love and acceptance of us.
It lies not with our state or our country.
It’s not dependent upon our enemies–whether we can defeat them or “win them over” to our side.
Our self-worth–our value as people–is given to us in a way such that it cannot be taken from us.
It cannot be taken from us because it is of God.
What’s important here is not necessarily doing exactly what Jesus says, but being confident of God’s acceptance of you and of all that that acceptance implies.
Embedded in Jesus’ perfect expectations of us is another kind of perfection, and that is Jesus’ perfect love for us.
Though Jesus did not likely mean for us to take his words literally, I do think we are supposed to try to exceed the law.
I think we’re supposed to try to love the people we can’t stand.
I think we’re supposed to go the second mile–out of our way–to do something for someone else.
Of course we’ll fail and of course we’ll be forgiven, but the expectation is there.
However, the only way we can even make an attempt at being perfect like God and resisting retaliation and vengeance, is first to recognize the way in which God has perfected love for us–that is, the way Jesus perfected love on the cross.
We have plenty examples of what it looks like not to follow Jesus here–examples of retaliation, vengeance, and getting even, and of self-centeredness and an insistence on getting one’s way.
What we don’t have enough examples of here is what confidence in the Gospel looks like.
Jesus, of course, is the best example, but we need others–people who weren’t Jesus and yet somehow seemed to understand his ways of seeking peace.
Consider, for example, the Greensboro Four–the four young African-American men who led the Greensboro sit-ins at Woolworth’s in the 1960s.
They are a great example of non-retaliation and their protests had an air of nonviolence that closely echoed Jesus’ command to “turn the other cheek.”
And yet the basis for their non-violence and their refusal to retaliate or to get even was their deep understanding that they were both loved and accepted as equals in God’s sight.
Nothing–not violence, not the police, not segregation–could convince them that they were not worthy of equality.
God had made them equal.
In fact, there is one theory that says that, when Jesus said to “turn the other cheek,” he was actually encouraging a fairer interaction.
If someone were to strike you on the right cheek, with a right hand, it would be a backhanded blow, which was a huge insult.
To “turn the other cheek” was to demand a certain amount of respect.
Now, piano lessons are one thing.
Living in God’s kingdom is if we take our identity as God’s children seriously, if we are confident of it, if we benefit from the security that it gives us, we will not give up trying to live up to Jesus’ expectations.
Of course, we will fail.But we will rise again.
And we will do so because of Jesus’ perfect love for us.
And nothing–not turning our cheeks, not giving up our cloaks, not the second mile, not loving our enemies, will keep that perfect love from being for us.
And confident of that love, we’ll get up and try again, because that which is most precious to us can never be taken from us.