“Last Sunday I preached part one in the series: Politics in the Kingdom of God. My goal was to leave you with two foundational ideas:
- That when everything else is stripped away, at the core of creation is love. And it is that way because we have a relational God, a Trinitarian God…(if you don’t know what means go back and listen to my sermon from last week).
- Freedom is the highest order idea in the Kingdom of God; and when freedom is exercised as it was intended to be exercised when God made us in God’s imagine, it compels us to ask the question: “What can I do for you?”
Today, in part two of Politics in the Kingdom of God, I want to get real granular with this question, “What can I do for you?” by examining four verses from Matthew 5. So, open your bulletin or Bible, take out a pencil, and let’s go to work. If you don’t have your Bible or the bulletin handy, don’t worry, we’ll flash the Bible verses up on the screen. This is going to be an old school teaching sermon, so, you may want to grab an extra cup of coffee.
This section of scripture we are examining is known as the Beatitudes. You may be familiar with the first section of the Beatitudes that starts off with: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God” (Matt 5:3). We pick up here, with verses 39, 40, 41, and 42, as Jesus takes us deeper into the Politics of the Kingdom of God.
He gives us specific instructions around how to answer the question: “What can I do for you?” Each verse corresponds with a type of response: One has to do with the body, one has to do with stuff (like I talked about a couple of weeks ago), one has to do with time, and one has to do with judgement. Those are the four words that correspond to these four verses:
v. 39: body,
v. 40: stuff,
v. 41: time,
v. 42 judgment.
I want to get specific today as a way of reminding us that the Bible is a handbook for how to practice Christianity.
We begin with the body, v. 39. Jesus says: “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…” No one likes that saying. It provokes all sorts of thought around being a door mat, or not walking away from an abusive relationship. And those are always worthy perspectives for consideration when reading this verse; but for today, I want us to hear this statement as if Jesus is making it to the powerful, to people who hold the reigns of political influence. And it is from that perspective that this Jesus injunction shifts this question to sound more like: “Is my discomfort more important than your problem?”
Hear Jesus’ teaching today not as personal, but as political; as in the body politic, or as we Christians like to call it: The Body of Christ. And so, the question that arises from this turning the cheek injunction is: “Where is the pain in the Body of Christ most acute?” In the hurt of a stinging cheek? Maybe. Or in the pain that provokes the lashing out?
In v.39 hear the slap not as an assault, hear it as a wake-up call, a reset button; and turning the other cheek is not as passive resignation, but as active tuning into the pain the person is trying to express. It is like the cry of a child…It pierces our ears. It is painful… it is supposed to be, to capture our attention, because in their cry they are trying to tell us something.
It is a wake-up call that should provoke us to ask the question: “What can I do for you?” The Body of Christ does not respond to the slap by running away, or licking our wounds, or unlocking the gun cabinet, or calling the insurance company; the Body of Christ gets us curious, even if it is uncomfortable.
We wonder: Why is this happening? What issue has been unattended to? How can I respond in a way that arches towards love? And the answer to those questions is always available from the part of the Body of Christ that is in pain. And so, we pay attention and ask: “What can I do for you?” V.39 is about paying attention to pain in the body of Christ.
V.40 is about stuff. Jesus says: “If anyone wants your coat, give your cloak as well.” Your coat and your cloak can help answer the question: “What can I do for you?”
I’ve given away my coat once. A woman came to church on a Sunday. Things were rough for her, and her mind was far from clear. She asked for money and food, and I invited her to church with the promise to help her after the service was over.
By then it was pouring rain. I got her something to eat. I was tired and wanted to go home, but I couldn’t send her packing in the pouring rain, so, I went to my office, and got my overcoat, my very best (and only overcoat), and I gave it to her along with $50 and then walked her to the bus stop.
And here is the deal, there was nothing generous about this. I knew I could get another overcoat. I knew I’d never miss the $50. I didn’t ask her what she needed, I did what I “thought was right,” and just enough to assuage my guilt. This is not what Jesus is talking about in v.40.
The politics of the Kingdom of God is about abundance. It is about knowing what someone needs, based on what they say and then giving them that, plus a bunch more; piling it on!
Some of you may remember from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, the scene when protagonist Jean Valjean is invited to spend the night at the Bishop’s house, even though the bishop suspected he is an escaped prisoner. That night Jean Valjean stole a silver candle stick and snuck into the night. He is picked up by some police officers who bring him back to the Bishop’s residence. When the Bishop sees Jean Valjean, he thanks the policemen, saying: “I am so glad you found this man and brought him back to me. He left without taking the second silver candlestick.” (para.)
And if you know the story, you know that Jean Valjean turns his life around and used this money to make a real difference in many people’s lives. The bishop’s actions reflect the precedent set by our God for us. Look around. How marvelous is creation; how wildly amazing, beautiful and abundant. See what God has done for humanity? Creation is God’s answer, to our response to the question: What can I do for you?
The political consideration in the Kingdom of God is not: “How much can I afford to give, so as not to impinge on my lifestyle? The question is: “What can I do with all this stuff that God has lavished upon me? How can I use all the stuff I have to answer the question: ‘What can I do for you?’”
You know what? I never replaced that overcoat, and I seem to be doing just fine.
Which brings us to v.41: “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” This is about time. It is not that I just don’t want to walk another mile because I am lazy (and out of shape), it is that I don’t have the time. I am busy. I have a to do list. And now I am being inconvenienced because I asked the question: “What can I do for you?” It is very often that all a person wants is our time, our attention, our presence…
Presence is such a valuable resource in the Politics of the Kingdom of God. We know this because we see that God set it as a high priority, both through God’s incarnational presence in the person of Jesus, and God’s permanent presence through the action of Resurrection and the Holy Spirit. Presence is a very valuable resource in the Politics of the Kingdom of God.
And so, Jesus’s injunction to walk that second mile is to give of our time, not as it fits into our calendar, but as it bends to the needs of the other.
But what if what they are asking us to do is a waste of time? This question brings us to the final piece of today’s teaching, v.42. We have examined the Body of Christ, we have looked at the abundance of stuff, we have thought through our presence through time, and now we let’s look at judgement.
In v.42 Jesus says: “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” But what if what they ask for is ridiculous, or maybe even bad for them? Has that ever crossed your mind? I remember wrestling with this “moral quandary” when I first graduated from college.
I had a job as a waiter in downtown Chicago, and I’d take the “L” home late at night. I’d get off at the Howard stop, which sat practically on top of a liquor store. I always put my tip cash in my shoe, about 90% of what I earned that night, and about 10% I’d put in my pocket. Then I would give it all away, all 10% of it, to the first person who asked…and someone always asked. They would say they needed it for this or that, and I’d just say OK, and give it to them.
Sometimes I’d walk on and not know what they actually did with it, but very often I’d see them make a beeline to the liquor store. And this bugged me. And every night as I rode toward the Howard stop, I’d think about this. Some nights I tried to pick a person to walk toward who might not head to the liquor store; but you can’t tell.
And finally, it occurred to me, sort of an Epiphany, that God gives without strings attached; and I could as well; sort of like that bishop in Les Miserables.
It occurred to me, as I gave away some of my hard earned money night after night, that I didn’t know the first thing about the life of those where were asking for money; or how God might use my money through them as part of some greater plan. So, I started to check my judgement, and then set it aside. In doing so, I found absolute delight each night in giving away that money. Judgment was transformed into joy.
Judgement to joy, care for the Body of Christ, turning stuff into substance for someone else, giving the gift of presence; these are ways we answer the question: “What can I do for you?” These are the operating actions within the politics of the Kingdom of God.
And, when we live into them, two surprises are revealed:
1) We are changed. We are liberated from the shackles of our illusion of control, and this opens us to the real peace of Jesus Christ.
2) We come to see that if all The Christians took on the Jesus mandates outlined in Matt 5: 39, 40, 41, and 42, it is entirely possible that one day we would no longer need to ask the question: “What can I do for you?”