a sermon for the seventh Sunday after the Epiphany [Year C]
Have you been watching any of the Winter Olympics over the past couple of weeks? I haven’t been able to catch as much as I normally do, but I’ve noticed that whether it is the Summer Olympic Games or the Winter Olympic ones it seems that certain countries tend to do well in certain events and sports year after year. Downhill skiing, for example, is dominated by the Austrians. Their country is basically all mountains, so they kind of have an advantage when it comes to that sport. When you think of speed skating you tend to think of the Dutch. They’ve got no mountains at all. Everything’s super flat there and there’s lots of water around so they’ve developed the talent pool to skate on icy surfaces. The Norwegians are the team to beat when it comes to cross-country skiing and this interesting sport when you ski around a while and then shoot a gun. I think it’s called biathlon. I guess in Norway there’s not just a lot of snow but also moose to hunt. Snowboarding is typically something we Americans are good at. It was invented here, and it kind of suits us: edgy, flashy, and a bit out of control. Other people from other countries may bring hold a medal from time to time, but often certain sports become the hallmark of specific people.
If all of life were like the Olympic games, and people of different creeds and ways of life all competing together, Jesus would say that his followers would be known for their command of forgiveness and love. Jesus’ followers would be the team to beat when it came to blessing others and sharing what they have. They’d dominate the edgy events of de-escalating conflict and seeking the higher ground.
After all, any ordinary person can do good to those who do good to them. Followers of Christ take it a step further: they win the gold with this rule of gold: do to all others as you would have them do to you. Any regular sinner, as Jesus points out, can lend something to another person hoping they’ll getting it back, maybe with interest. It’s the Christians who are notable for how they give without strings. And any old schmo can love the people who are easy to get along with. It’s the ones who have been training with Jesus who get better at loving the ones who are a bit prickly.
This is Jesus’ hope and plan for the community his love creates: that they function in the world as a people who act differently than the norm. Conspicuously, they are to hold back on judging others and condemning them for their behavior. Jesus, of course, said all of this before people had to wear facemasks. Even he had no idea how judgmental we would become one day about the wearing of or the rejecting of facemasks. Nevertheless, his vision is that the ever-rolling tide of judgmentalism might be turned back by the people who follow him.
In one of the final episodes of the first season of Ted Lasso, Apple TV’s hit over the past two years, the title character faces off against his boss’ nasty ex-husband, Rupert, who has judged Ted to be an imbecile and a rube. Through a surprising game of darts in a pub, which Ted masterfully wins, he teaches Rupert the importance of being “Curious, not judgmental.” Ted chooses it almost as a type of life motto for himself, finding there is a wisdom in holding back on judging people and instead just observing them and getting to know them.
I have to think Jesus’ sermon to his disciples lines up quite nicely with that. Be curious, not judgmental, Jesus might have said. In a world of vengeful people, be merciful. In a field of harsh and rigid ideologues out there, be gracious and flexible. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back, and you probably want to get a generous measure.
Interestingly enough, one of the oldest documents we have about the Christian faith describes in thoughtful detail what some non-Christians thought of Christ’s followers. It’s called the Letter to Diognetus, and it is unique among the early Christian writings because it is not addressed to another Christian but someone outside the faith altogether. We don’t know who the author was, but we do know it was sent to some Diognetus, who may have been a tutor to the Roman Emperor. It was likely written sometime between A.D. 150 and A.D. 225. In it the author tries to explain how this new faith, this new group of people who follow Christ, come across in society. Here’s a bit of what he tells Diognetus:
“For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric lifestyle. They share their food, but not their [spouses]. They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted. They are poor, yet they make many rich. They are cursed, yet they bless; they are insulted, yet they offer respect. When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; when they are punished, they rejoice as though brought to life.”
No eccentric lifestyle. No strange customs or way of speaking. Across the ancient landscape, home to so many different sects and groups, Christians are just known for love made real in the lives of the people they come into contact with, and, most notably, in the lives of those who don’t seem to like them.
This was the reputation of Christ’s followers then, and sometimes I wonder what our reputation is now. If someone were to write a letter to Diognetus today, describing how Christians behaved as a group, would it be so flattering? What would outsiders notice and comment on?
Jesus’ instructions in his sermon on the plain apply to both individuals and to the church as a whole. It’s not easy to tell that in the English because we have the same word, “you,” for the singular and plural second person pronoun, but Jesus switches back and forth between you as individuals and you as “y’all.” So, therefore, it’s not just our own individual enemies that Jesus encourages us to treat well, but also the enemies of the church, those who oppose or persecute us.
I have to be honest and say I don’t know exactly who that might be in today’s culture, since the church isn’t being persecuted in the same way in the United States as it was in the second century. There are no gladiator games, no pits of lions we’re being thrown to. Most of the times Christ-followers, churches, and Christian groups start from a place of power and privilege in our country. Regardless, the vision Jesus casts for his community is one where the unexpected and kind response is our standard. When provoked, when inconvenienced, when ridiculed, when misunderstood, the church responds with grace and understanding and self-sacrifice.
This is no persecution, but three years ago our congregation felt a bit singled out when the county required us to put a sidewalk along Horsepen Road. No other property along this road has one, so we considered fighting it, since we were going to have to cover the cost. But in one meeting one of our builders said, “Do you really want to be a church known for refusing to build a sidewalk, for fighting against something that will make you a better neighbor and might lead to more community in your context?”
It was like that builder was reminding us of what Diognetus had heard 19 centuries ago—us, the people who should be automatically gracious and do good even when it’s hard. Now the county is proposing sidewalks all along this corridor all the way down to Forest Avenue and Patterson. We started it! Jesus hopes his followers are named for starting and continuing all kinds of good measures throughout the world.
But whether it’s the donation of a sidewalk to people who can’t pay us back, or offering our other cheek to the person who has humiliated us, or giving to the person who has already asked for too much, these are tough teachings. Some of the things Jesus asks his followers to do here are tactics of non-violent resistance, like giving your shirt even if someone takes away your coat. In ancient times, the most anyone wore on their body was an outer coat and undershirt. And so if someone assaulted you by taking your coat, then by giving them your shirt too you stood before them naked, which would have been shameful for them. I’m not sure Jesus is preparing his disciples for something that might happen to them a lot or if he’s speaking metaphorically. The point is: rather than responding violently or even aggressively or even judgmentally, through forgiveness and compassion we put them in the position where they feel humiliated by what they’ve done.
These are indeed hard things, challenging teachings. The good news is that our job is never really to follow Christ teachings, like they’re some book on the shelf at Barnes & Noble that we buy and read each morning with our coffee. We are not called to follow teachings. We are called to follow the teacher, that teacher is risen from the dead. Christ loves us, guides us, even when we fail, even when we back away from this life of love. Christ claims us though grace and equips us through his Spirit and actually lives in us, both as individuals and as a group, empowering us to response in grace to world filled with hostility. God is kind, after all, to the ungrateful and the wicked, not just the ones who always get things right.
Our ability to play on this team, to be known for love and forgiveness and mercy is not up to us at all. We are able because Jesus has first loved and forgiven and been merciful with us. Jesus comes alongside of us and shows us the way. And I don’t know about you, but I feel I hold this team of ours back all the time. Jesus comes to rescue and retrain, reboot and refresh, time and time again.
South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize who died just two months ago, worked for forgiveness and reconciliation in a country that was torn by the wickedness of racial segregation. He and other black people and people of color in South Africa had endured decades of cruel and wicked treatment. He was able to help the church bring about unthinkable changes of healing in that country because of his steadfast view that in Jesus God had already won against the forces of evil. He famously summed up the anti-apartheid movement by saying to those who supported it, “God is not mocked! You have already lost! We just ask that you see us as humans.”
Perhaps that’s the key to working on this list of unrealistic goals Jesus has for his team, a bar so high in forgiveness and love that there is only one way we can reach it. We remember we’ve already won. Our team is victorious. We love our enemies, we bless our persecutors, we live in kindness not because it’s the right thing to do but because it’s the only logical thing to do if Jesus is risen from the dead. It’s the only logical, natural thing to do if we are, in fact, what Jesus calls us: children of the Most High. And the measure we give will be the measure we get back, pressed down, shaken together, running over.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.
 “The Epistle to Diognetus”, 5:1 ff. in The Apostolic Fathers. Edited and revised by Michael W. Holmes. Baker Books, p 541
 “Troublemaker in a Cassock,” The Economist, Jan 1, 2022 Edition