Leviticus 19:1-2; 9-18; 1Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Mathew 5:38-48
For several months the vitriol and attacks aimed at him have been persistent and merciless. In recent weeks, it has gotten worse. I don’t agree with him or his decisions, but as I saw picture after picture with a caption hoping for his demise, as I read every commentary about his leadership as misguided, and every success for “my side” a victory over him personally, I couldn’t help start to feel badly for the person behind the title. I thought about his wife and children and how they must be feeling as they see their husband and father jeered in public.
I am, of course, referring to Roger Goodell, the Commissioner of the National Football League.
While you may have thought of some other people for whom this description might have fit, I begin with Roger Goodell because, well, fans forgive me, it’s football. I was so taken aback by the venom being spewed at this man over a game.
If the level of discourse over a game with little real consequence for the good of the world couldn’t rise above that of third graders on a schoolyard playground, what hope do we have when it comes to matters of the highest stakes?
Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. This directive, with its accompanying instructions to turn the other cheek, give our coat and walk the second mile is, for many of us, the most difficult thing Jesus has to say.
Of course, this last season of football is not the greatest source of conflict in my life, and neither Tom Brady nor Roger Goodell are the enemies for whom Jesus is asking me to pray.
I have had some experience in my life when I have tried on Jesus’ words to us this morning, and I have found them to be transformational. Usually, I have remembered Jesus’ command when I have been in conflict with a work colleague, or a family member. Hardly enemies, and rarely subject of persecution, nevertheless, holding people in prayer with whom I am in conflict has really changed the nature of the conflict for me.
Holding someone in prayer with whom I am angry or by whom I have been hurt has changed the nature of the conflict in my own heart. Slowly, I have found, impulses for retaliation and to tear the other down in my own mind has given way to something else, something more like a desire to understand, maybe even a bud of compassion, if not forgiveness.
More than anything else, though, I have found holding someone with whom I am angry in prayer brings me freedom. When conflicts arise, I can spend a lot of time up in my head thinking about the incident over and over, seeing the face of the other in my mind, the knot tightening in my stomach. The people with whom I come into conflict can take up a great deal of real estate in my head.
Bringing them to prayer turns my attention somewhere else. Any time spend in prayer turns my attention to God, to Jesus and to all that I believe Jesus wants for me, and for the other person. And the more I think about Jesus, the less I think about the source of my hurt, or my frustration, or my anger, and the knot in my soul begins to loosen.
The more I focus my attention on God, and what God wants for me, the less I focus on the fears and grudges and anger that spin around in my head like a mental twitter feed.
The more I pray, the more I am free. The more I pray, the more I am me, the me God wants me to be, the me I long to be.
The Bishop of Western Massachusetts, the Right Reverand Doug Fisher wrote a great blog post this week in which he states his desire to move from living a “Trump-centered life” to a “Christ-centered life.”[i]
Because I spend too much time on Facebook, I knew exactly what he meant. If you were to scroll through my Facebook news feed, you would see post after post after post about the chaos and unrest coming out of Washington. Attached to each one of these posts is a picture of Donald Trump, and it is never a flattering one.
If there isn’t a picture of the President, there is a picture of a member of his staff, usually equally unflattering.
Two weeks ago, there was a reprieve, though, as Tom Brady’s picture took over my newsfeed for a bit. Wonderful pictures of Tom and his family, Tom and his team, Tom and his supermodel wife enjoying the spoils of victory. Oh, and the occasional picture of Roger Goodell, usually with a caption that was less than flattering.
You know whose picture I don’t see very often on my newsfeed? Jesus. I don’t see Jesus’ picture very often at all and I’m a priest. And most of my friends are priests. If I’m not seeing Jesus’ picture scroll by, chances are not very good you are either.
But my newsfeed on Facebook is just an outward and visible sign of the contents of my mind and the conversations I am having with family and friends.
I want to reclaim my life as a Christ-centered one, not a Trump or Brady centered-one.
I want to work for Christ’s agenda, for God’s dream for the world. I want to stand for something, not against someone.
Perhaps the most challenging part of this morning’s Gospel lesson comes right at the end when Jesus instructs us to be perfect, as God in heaven is perfect. For many of us, that’s the deal breaker right there. If the bar I am supposed to reach in my life is Godly perfection, I might as well give up right now.
That way of thinking, though, comes from not understanding what Jesus means by asking us to be perfect.
David Lose writes, “The word we translate “perfect” is actually the Greek word and implies less a moral perfection than it does reaching one’s intended outcome. The of an arrow shot by an archer is to reach its target. The of a peach tree is to yield peaches. Which means that we might translate this passage more loosely to mean, “Be the person and community God created you to be, just as God is the One God is supposed to be.””
Jesus is asking us, no telling us, commanding us to be the person and community God created us to be, just as God is only and ever the One God is supposed to be.
We do that by righting ourselves, reorienting ourselves, refocusing ourselves on the one we claim to follow.
Bishop Fisher, in his blog, gives some concrete ways we might move from living a Trump-centered life to a Christ-centered one, and I commend them to you. I’ll post the link to the blog on the parish website attached to this sermon.
For me, I plan to use Lent, which begins in just ten days, as an opportunity to do some re-orienting. I plan to take my usual Lenten sabbatical from Facebook. This year I hope to use the time I would have spent scrolling my newsfeed to pray with images of God; to put God at the very center of my life.
How might God be inviting you to put God at the very center of your life, that you might experience the freedom Jesus offers you and live God wants for you?
There is a great old hymn that says,
I woke up this morning with my mind, stayed on Jesus.
May God give us the strength to do just that.
© 2017 The Reverend Jeffrey W. Mello[ii]
[ii] While all direct and indirect quotes are always cited, there are sources I read regularly in preparation for sermon writing. Chances are thoughts have been spurred by these sources and so I list the usual suspects here: David Lose, In the Meantime, The New Interpreters Bible, Sacra Pagina .