Sermon for February 20, 2011|| Epiphany 7 – Year A|| Matthew 5: 38 – 48
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
Have you ever known someone who just seemed to bring out the best in you?
That was definitely one of the reasons I fell in love with Don–I remember realizing that he brought out the best in me. I actually liked who I was when I was with him—and frankly, I didn’t like myself much in those days. But Don brought out my best self and I knew I really loved him because I loved who I was when I was with him.
I’ve since learned that that’s a really good way of discerning healthy relationships—to consider whether the friends, colleagues, or family members with whom we spend our time bring out our best self– what in theological language we would call our “Christ-self”– the self God calls us to be, the self whose behaviors mirror our values and beliefs, and who forms the essential Christ-like core of our being. The self we can feel good about.
Of course, we all have triggers that bring out our “darker” side–our lower, less spiritually mature, or “unredeemed” self. When someone gets angry with us, we tend to get angry back. When someone is mean to us, too often we’re mean to them, too. And if someone doesn’t like us, well, it’s no coincidence that we generally don’t like them much either.
It all seems perfectly natural. Yet there’s a reason that when we’re angry, or mean, or hostile –we call it being “out of sorts.” Because in fact it’s not perfectly natural for us to feel such ugly feelings, and on some intuitive level we know that. We know that we’re not being true to our best selves, we’re not being the man or woman God created us to be, and we feel lousy because of it—even, you may have noticed, when our anger or hostility seems by all objective standards to be totally justified. It still feels yucky, and it turns out that having a “right” to feel such yucky feelings doesn’t make them feel any better. They still have the effect of working on us like spiritual poison.
So wouldn’t it be nice to be free of such soul-killing, toxic emotions?
That’s exactly what this morning’s gospel is all about. Jesus is showing us the way to a wonderful life-giving freedom: “…love your enemies…pray for those who persecute you…be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Yeah, yeah, I know: At first blush that seems like pretty simplistic advice. Easier said than done, right? But bear with me for a minute, because those seemingly idealistic, uber-Christian words we’ve heard so often, actually mean a lot more than most of us were taught in Sunday school. It’s just that the way the Greek has been translated doesn’t do them justice.
See, to love your “echthros’” means to love anyone who opposes you or is hostile towards you—not just your enemy. And most of us, unless we’re mentally unbalanced, don’t consider everyone who ever opposes us or shows hostility towards us an “enemy.” And people who “dioko” you, are people who harass you or trouble you—something most of us can identify with much more readily than being “persecuted.” And finally, when Jesus commands us to be “teleios,” it’s less about being “perfect” than it is about being spiritually mature and complete, fully grown into the person God is calling each of us to be and who we each have the power to be through our baptism in Christ.
“I’m telling you to love your enemies,” writes The Message Bible interpretation of this passage…
“Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves…In a word, what I’m saying is, grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
Now, this is still a very challenging word for us to take in. Whether someone is persecuting us or simply giving us a hard time, it’s not easy to respond generously and graciously. It’s not easy to work out of our true God-created selves. And it’s pretty hard to imagine difficult people bringing out the best in us, rather than the worst. But the good news is that thanks be to God, it’s totally possible–unless we depend only on our selves to do it.
“Respond with the energies of prayer,” Jesus says in the Message Bible, “for then you are working out of your true selves…”
“Pray,” the traditional translation says, “so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
Prayer: The key to this entire passage—indeed, to the entire Christian life—is prayer! That is what Jesus is pointing to in this passage. Nothing, not even reading scripture, is as critical to living out of our best selves, as prayer. Reading scripture may tell us how to live, but prayer is what makes it possible. Prayer, for the Christian who wants to be Christian not just in thought and word but also in deed, is simply not optional. It is essential. Without prayer, our spirits become malnourished and misshapen. Our best selves depend on it.
Without prayer, we can’t possibly even realize that we have a Christ-like, God-created self at our core–-much less can we depend on it for the power to love the unlovable or to live generously and graciously toward others. Without prayer, we can’t possibly access the power we need to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, to grow up, or to become the complete, spiritually mature men and women God has created us to be.
Mind you, God didn’t create us to be doormats. This passage is not about passively allowing others to use and abuse us. But what this passage is about is very actively and intentionally nurturing our relationship with the Christ who already dwells in us, so that when we are mistreated or triggered in some other way, we’re prepared. That way, we won’t respond in kind from our lowest, most unredeemed self–but rather, from our God-created self, our Christ self, our best, loving self. The self we can feel good about.
Think of prayer as exercise for our spiritual muscles. The more we do it, the stronger and more spiritually mature we grow. Prayer allows the Christ in us to flourish and blossom, and it allows us to be available to His grace when we most need it!
Prayer doesn’t have to be fancy. It doesn’t have to be profound. But it does have to be frequent. It does have to be regular. Because prayer has to become second-nature. It has to become habitual. After all, if you want to get to know the Christ-in-you, you’ve got to spend some time hanging out with him.
Writer Anne Lamott is famous for saying that there are really only two prayers: “Help me, help me, help me,” and “thank you, thank you, thank you.” In a sense, she’s right. Maybe you could try: “Help me, help, help me, to love the unlovable.” Or, “Help me, help me, help me, to live as you call me to live.”
Whatever shape your prayer life takes, the important thing, the critical thing, is that we each have one. We need to spend time getting to know the Christ-in-us. Because that’s who we really are. That’s our God-created self!
And that’s the self we can ever really love, because it’s the self that already loves others, through the power of Jesus Christ. Amen.