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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Epiphany 2/16/2014

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
Allan E. Johnson

So, we’ve got a weather radio in our bedroom.  And I can’t say it’s altogether convenient when the alarm goes off at four in the morning.  But the point of it is, if there’s a storm coming, we really want to know.    Walk the dog before it hits; bring in some firewood; maybe a quick trip to the grocery store.  When the weather’s changing, there are things to do.

Sometimes there are more important changes.  Here’s the change Matthew’s Gospel is built around:  “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”  This is a change.   You and I have grown up in a wounded world, in need of healing.  Many things we take for granted are broken, and will never be whole until God mends them.  Which is important.  Because when we’re used to abuses they seem natural; but they aren’t.

You and I pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”  We pray for what we need.  We need to be living in a world in which the compassionate will of God is done, and not the lies and schemes of selfishness which fill the news.  That is what the kingdom, or kingly power, of heaven is:  whenever the will of God is done, that is when we can see what the power of God intends.  Until then, it is easy to get wrong what a truly normal human life is all about.  We expect what we are used to; and it takes us time to even see it, when the world is changing.

After I went away to college we had a spare bedroom; so my mom and dad started taking in foster children.  One of them was a teenage girl.  And after a couple of weeks, my mom was putting the laundry away and found stale bread in the back of the girl’s dresser drawer.  She’d been sneaking some at every meal and hiding it.  Because what she was used to, was being abandoned.  There’s food on the table tonight.  There may not be tomorrow.  Better hide some away.  In case. 

In her experience, being neglected was normal.  She expected it.  And so she lived accordingly.  Now she was with my parents, that wasn’t going to happen.  But she didn’t know that yet.

Which is sad.  But consider:  what are the things you and I have experienced as “normal,” which are not the will of God?  What do we expect, and live accordingly, when if it is true that the kingly power of God is transforming our world, we don’t need to live as if abandonment were normal?

In that context, “repent” doesn’t mean “clean up your act.”  It’s more like – open your eyes!  See what’s new!  See what’s real, in the mercy of God, which is moving in our world.  And take your stand with the healing of the world.

I find it helpful to think of the Gospel using imagery from the end of World War II.  When the Nazi regime was crumbling, the Allies were closing in on the prison camps, soon the nightmare would end.  In that time when the world was changing, that was when it would matter to say “Reconsider your allegiance!  The old regime is crumbling.  God is on the march!”  Which is what it means to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

With this in mind, that God is at work in the world, and terrible things we have taken for granted will be no longer in control, because the time has come when God is doing something better, and Jesus has begun the healing of the world; with this in mind, let’s look at this morning’s words from the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus said, You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.

What’s at stake here is, in a world without justice and without God, it makes sense to retaliate against any harm and to insist on every last shred of our rights so we don’t risk getting beaten down.  If somebody hurts you, hurt them.  It makes sense, in a world without God; as it makes sense to hide away stale bread in a world where you might not get supper tomorrow.  But what if it is true that God is on the march?  Then other sorts of behavior begin to make better sense.

Here’s another example.  Jesus says “if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”  What’s going on here is the question of “fairness.”  Not being put upon, by somebody richer or more powerful than you.

Let’s put it in modern terms.  You go into a store, and the prices seem too high, and you get angry.  Retaliation would suggest that you should get your own back.  With weasel words like “five finger discount.”  But look how this sets up a cycle of harm.  The store puts up the prices, passing the cost of shoplifting on to you.  Hires security.  Puts tags on the merchandise.  All of which costs money.  And you pay for it.  I found one estimate that every family in this country pays $300 a year to pay the costs of shoplifting.

Does that make you angry?  The dumbest thing to do, would be retaliation.  Do you see how the cycle works?  Get angry.  Steal.  The prices go up.  You’re angry.  Steal again.  And round and round it goes.  Now maybe the prices are high.  I don’t know.  Retaliation doesn’t make them any lower. 

However tough it might seem to push back when you feel abused, that strategy never improves the situation.  Right now, there’s a tragic example in the Central African Republic.  A Muslim government sponsored violence against African Christians.  Now that government’s gone.  And now the Christians are killing Muslims.  And round and round and round the cycle goes.  Retaliation makes our lives poorer, and smaller, and shrunken.  Let it go.

God is on the march; and Jesus tells us that there is a better way.  Be strong enough that you can break the cycle.  Just end it.  If you’re offended, don’t strike back.  Just don’t. 

If wrong is done to you, find some way to improve life, instead of hitting back.  “You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you,  Do not retaliate.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…”

Because this battered and abandoned world will be no longer hopeless.  Because the compassion of God is stronger than anything wrong can do.  Because wickedness did at the cross the worst that it possibly could, to the point of killing God’s Messiah; and God raised him from the dead and made him Lord.  Because the power of God is on the march.

Paul the apostle wrote in Romans, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  Overcome evil.  Don’t just push back.  Call on God’s power and have more strength than that. Where there are cycles of hurt, do what you can to end them, break the cycle.  Instead of being ground up, throw a wrench into the gears of the machinery of sin, and stop it.  Which is done by doing good, where harm would be expected.

It can be remarkably effective.  For an example, compare two wars.  At the end of World War I, the allied victors retaliated against Germany.  They did what they could to beat down the Germans and make sure they would never threaten European peace again.  What that bought us, a few years down the road, was Hitler.  At the end of World War II, came the Marshall Plan.  The United States helped to rebuild the nations we had defeated.  Get them back on their feet again.  What that bought us was sixty years of peace in western Europe.   

Augustine, an ancient Christian, once put it this way.  None of us feel the need to retaliate if we’re hit by a crying baby, or by someone to whom age has brought confusion and dementia.  If you’re an aide in a nursing home, you don’t hit back at a resident.  All sin is a kind of dementia.  Don’t hit it.  Heal it where you can.  “You have heard that it was said, said Jesus, 'You shall 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 his sun rise on the evil and on the good.”  And that is how the healing of the world begins. 

Amen.
 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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