Note: Because of the storm today, no regular worship services took place at Trinity. The sermon was given during an online mini-worship and devotion. The video of this can be found at: https://www.facebook.com/tlcowatonna/videos/150318269244805/
In 1998, the Los Angeles Times ran a story about a man named Eli Estrada. Eli was a young entrepreneur, who was trying to open a brand-new lawn and landscaping business in Los Angeles. It was a competitive market, and it was a struggle. Eli wasn’t certain he’d be able to earn business fast enough to pay for all of the equipment he’d needed to purchase, and the staff he’d needed to hire. One day he was going door to door, soliciting business, when he found a large, gray bag lying on the side of the road. He was curious; he opened it. It was filled with cash. A total of $140,000, all in $20 bills.
Eli’s first thought, upon opening the bag? “I’m rich!” But that thought only stayed with him for a fleeting instant.
He immediately began this internal dialog: On the one hand, he could view this as some kind of divine gift. This sudden windfall would bail him out and buy him and his company time. On the other hand, Eli knew that the money was not his; that it belonged to someone else who was probably really missing it about now.
So, shortly after he found the bag, Eli walked into the closest police station and turned it in. The police were understandably surprised, this wasn’t behavior they witnessed very often.
A tough decision on Eli’s part, right? When asked why he turned in the cash, Eli said he couldn’t sleep knowing that he had kept what belonged to someone else.
Doing the right thing can be hard.
We all know that. We live it. Every single day we have an opportunity to make decisions about the kind of life we want to lead. And every single day we’re reminded: it’s complicated. Life is complicated.
The article in the Times concludes with a quote from the police officer who filled out the report when Eli turned the money in. And it was this quote that really got my attention. He said: “In this job, it’s refreshing to run into a good person now and then.”
“It’s refreshing to run into a good person now and then.” This line caught my attention because this police officer was equating the act, turning in $140,000 in lost money, with Eli’s heart. On that single act, the police officer was making a positive judgment about Eli’s character. Because let’s be honest, the police officer really didn’t know what kind of person Eli was. He only had this tiny little glimpse into Eli’s heart.
This police officer would have, I think, fit in well living in the time of Jesus. Because during Jesus’ time, this was the way people were considered and judged. The philosophy was: “If you want to know someone’s heart, watch their actions.”
The flip side of that was also true. People then believed that you could train someone’s heart and their spirit by teaching them to do the right thing.
So, for example, if someone was to become a fisherman, they would apprentice with a fisherman. They would follow a fisherman around, they would learn what a fisherman does, and they would take on the qualities and characteristics of a fisherman, until they became a fisherman.
If someone was to become a rabbi, they would apprentice with a rabbi. They would follow a rabbi around, they would learn what a rabbi does and they would take on the qualities and characteristics of a rabbi, until they became a rabbi.
Your vocation, your heart and your identity would become like those you modeled yourself after.
That is, by the way, one of the primary reasons that Trinity has a mentorship component in its confirmation program for young people.
Our middle schoolers are matched up with a mentor, a person of strong faith, because we want them to learn by spending time together. They spend time with a disciple, they follow a disciple around, to take on the characteristics of that disciple, in order to become a disciple.
So, what exactly, is Jesus up to in this Gospel reading today? He’s giving us specific examples of the characteristics and the qualities of God. Because if you wanted your heart to reflect God’s heart, then you had to act like God would act.
You might remember, back in the 1990’s, those little bracelets that people were wearing that said WWJD, which stood for “What Would Jesus Do?” The idea was to remind you to ask yourself the question about Jesus actions before you made you made your decisions about your own actions. Literally, millions of these little bracelets were sold. They were hot items in the youth ministry world. I think I owned about 14 of them.
There was, however, a minor problem with these little bracelets: they didn’t give you all the information. I gave some consideration to marketing and selling a new bracelet that would resolve this problem. Instead of WWJD, my bracelet would have said Y H T K W G D B Y C D W J W D. Of course, you know that this stands for, right? It is an acronym for “You have to know what God did before you can decide what Jesus would do.” I thought it was a great idea…the only problem was that to get those initials to fit on a bracelet would mean making it the size of a hula-hoop.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is being pretty straight-forward. This is what you should do, because this is what God did. If you want to be like God, do these things:
- Love your enemies
- Do good to those who hate you
- Bless those who curse you
- Pray for those who abuse you
- If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also
- From anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt
- Give to everyone who begs from you
- If anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again
- And finally, do to others as you would have them do to you.
These, Jesus says, are the qualities, the characteristics of God. This is what God does. And to take on the qualities of God means to do these things.
So, Jesus gives this list to his disciples. I can visualize the moment. He says it and there is a pause, and then the disciples all say: “What?!? You want us to do what? To love our enemies? Pray for those who abuse us? To offer the other cheek?”
And Jesus says “yes. This is what following God means.”
Now, I want to be kind of careful here. These words of Jesus, they are kind of tricky. And they have been misused over the centuries. In fact, these words of Jesus have been used to do the exact opposite of what I believe Jesus intended.
People, especially people in authority…and sadly, sometimes those in the church, have used these words to encourage those who have been abused, bullied, or hurt by others, to stay silent about what they experienced:
- “Your spouse has abused or hurt you? No, don’t say anything…instead, pray for them.”
- “You have been the victim of an assault? By someone that you trusted? No, to don’t bring it to the authorities…we will take care of it, because that is what God would want.”
- “You have been emotionally bullied? I think you just misunderstood them. Turn the other cheek. It will be fine.”
Often, Jesus’ words are misinterpreted or misunderstood to give the impression that the most appropriate Christian thing to do is to either roll over and ignore what happened, or to find something redeeming about it.
This is not what Jesus is saying. It does us good to remember that not everything that happens in our lives, or in the world, is always a part of God’s plan.
Sometimes, there is simply sin, and brokenness, and we feel trapped.
These words of Jesus are tricky. They are not intended to mean that you should just subject yourself to pain or abuse. And they should not be used as a club, or as a way to re-injure someone who is already experiencing pain. That’s not what Jesus is talking about.
The opposite is true. Jesus says, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” A follower of Jesus would want to be held accountable…to be told when they hurt someone…to have the opportunity to make amends, to repent, and to ask forgiveness. The operating system Jesus is describing here is love. How do you show the greatest love? It may be to step out of a hurtful situation, or to accompany and support someone as they step out of a hurtful situation. It may be to confront abusive behavior, or to confront injustice that causes pain. This might be exactly what Jesus would want us to do, because of course, it is exactly what Jesus did.
Jesus is giving his followers, then and now, a moment to “reset.” He is saying that the way we separate, and the way we judge, is not the way of God. He is saying that we need to learn from God’s example, new ways of treating each other, talking to each other, and living together in community. This is what it is to be a disciple, a follower.
And make no mistake, you are a follower. You have been called and claimed in the waters of baptism. You are a child of God, loved in ways and depths that you cannot begin to imagine.
And from those waters of baptism, you are called to follow the one Holy and living God. What does that mean?
- It means to take on the characteristics of Jesus, the God made flesh
- It is to look at the world around you through the lens of faith, hope and love
- It means to love all, even those who do not have your best interest in mind, or who would break your spirit.
- It means to confront abusive behavior and injustice
- It means to be generous with your love, with your time, and with your resources.
To be a follower means that someone can look at what you do and get a glimpse of who you follow, and why you follow them.
It means that when asked, those people you meet could say “It’s so refreshing to run into a good person now and then. It’s so refreshing to run into someone who follows Jesus.”
Thanks be to God!