Sermon February 23: The Second Mile

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Faith United Methodist Church
February 23, 2014
Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
Rev. Krista-Beth Atwood

Scripture: Matthew 5:38-48, Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

Prayer of Illumination:

Teach us your ways, O Lord, that we may live by your statues with hearts filled with joy.  Give us understanding, that we may follow your paths all the days of our lives.  We have longed for your words of life, O God.  In your righteousness, give us life.  Amen.

Sermon:  The Second Mile 

I like to think of myself as a runner.  Lately that is as far as it’s gone ~ thinking of myself as a runner.  I haven’t actually run for about a year.  You see, I didn’t discover I liked running until I was in my thirties.  I wasn’t fast or ~ particularly graceful ~ but I had fun.  A few years later, though, I developed a pain in my knee and my physical therapist told me that my knees aren’t built for running.  She said I could run if I really wanted to, but I would always have problems with my knee.  So I ran some.  And then didn’t run.  And then ran a little more.  And then stopped running.  During those years I was running, though, I really enjoyed being a runner.

And during those years I ran in a few 5ks and a couple five-mile races.  When running a 5k (three miles) I always found the second mile the most challenging.  The first mile I was excited and the adrenaline was pumping.  The third mile I could envision the finish line.  The second mile, though, was just one foot in front of the other.   This experience gave new meaning to Jesus teaching, “Go the second mile.”

Go the second mile.  Jesus, though, wasn’t talking about a race.  He was talking about something much more serious. In the world he lived in Roman soldiers were allowed to compel those under the occupation ~ the Jews ~ to carry their packs for them.  Heavy, cumbersome packs.  Legally, though, they could only force such service for one mile.  After a mile they would have to find someone else to carry their pack.  But to this Jesus says, “…if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”  What?  Why would any self-respecting Jew want to serve his oppressors more than absolutely necessary?

To this challenging teaching Jesus adds several more:  If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.  If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give him your cloak as well.  Give to everyone who begs from you and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.  Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

Unfortunately this passage has often been used to dominate and oppress others.   Jesus seemed to be saying that we should not stand up for ourselves.  Throughout the ages people have used these teachings to encourage the abused to stay with their abusers, to keep the oppressed ‘in their place,’ and even as a justification for slavery and other atrocities of injustice.  Turn the other cheek.  Go the second mile.  Love your enemies.

Yet, if we read closely we’ll understand that Jesus did not condone or support oppression. I think to fully understand what Jesus was saying we have to take seriously the last verse of this passage.  At the end of this teaching Jesus says the hardest thing of all.  “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.”

The Greek word translated perfect doesn’t mean flawless or without fault.  It means complete, mature, whole.  It implies a fulfillment of intentions and an accomplishing of God’s given purpose.  It means living with integrity.  To be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect is to have a faith that takes into account God’s vision.  As the UCC writer Mark Suriano describes it, the call to perfection is a “…call to the highest and best within us, to raise our sights and join [God] in creating a more compassionate world, and to create among us a true community based on self-giving.”  Jesus teachings are not a call to knuckle under and accept the abuses thrown at us.   Jesus’ teachings are an invitation to see the world through God’s eyes.

What Roman soldier would expect that, after forcing you to carry his pack, you would willingly carry it twice the distance that was required?  That would have been shocking ~ even unheard of ~ since violence and compulsion were the popular ways of keeping control.  Going the second mile was a way to exercise power through love.

And what thief would expect that, upon taking your coat you would give him your cloak as well?   As Suriano explains it, “The exercise of self-giving and of ‘going the extra mile’ are meant to be liberating and not enslaving.”  These acts of love are choices that cannot be imposed on us.  Jesus calls us to go beyond the requirements of the law of ‘and eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ and not challenge evil on its own terms.  As our Seasons of the Spirit puts it, “…these words are an invitation to live not by the rules of an empire but by the covenant that shapes God’s realm.”

In fact Jesus even tells us that we are to love our enemies, to pray for them.  To love our enemies does not mean to subject ourselves to their abuses or put ourselves at their mercy of their whims.  To love our enemies does not mean that we have to have warm, fuzzy feelings about them.  To love our enemies is a choice.  It is to love without discrimination.   In this way, we expand the boundaries of our concern. As the Bishop William Willimon proclaimed, “God’s love is extravagant, risky, an offense to common sense; and God’s children love like that.”

In our Old Testament lesson from Leviticus we hear a similar sentiment.  About to enter the Promised Land, Moses received instructions from God about how the people of Israel were to live.  God commanded them to show concern for the poor, feed the hungry, and be honest with each other, proclaiming, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy…”

Be holy?  Be perfect?  Is it possible?  As process theologian Bruce Epperly describes it, “To be perfect means to embrace otherness, to promote reconciliation, and seek the well-being of all.  This is truly ‘holy’ or ‘set apart’ from the values of a competitive, win-lose, individualistic culture.  Our perfection is grounded in our stature and relatedness…” As God’s children we can recognize that we are all connected to God and to each other.

So I may not be a runner anymore, but I can still go the second mile.  And you can, too.  Are you ready to love extravagantly?  Are you ready to expand the boundaries and love as God loves?  Are you ready to go that second mile?  The truth is that sometimes we may be and sometime we may not.  The choices that Jesus puts before us are difficult ones.  Loving like God loves is challenging.  It is not a choice we can make once and for all, but a choice we make every day. And, through choosing the way of love we chose to live in covenant with God and with each other.  Lord, help us to accept the challenge of our faith and find the love that strengthens our connections to you and to each other.  Amen.