We hear Jesus preach this morning, Let your light shine before others. Do not resist evil. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, you’re to turn and offer up the left. If they ask for your shirt, you give em your coat to. If they press you for one mile, you’re supposed to go two. Give to those who beg from you, and love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. In a word, we’re supposed to be perfect, Jesus says, just like God is.
You’ve heard me confess before that I don’t care so much for Matthew’s Gospel – I really don’t care for this sermon either. They create an ideal to which I know I am unable to achieve. And which one of us sets out to be a failure every morning?
Sure there are examples of folks rising to meet the challenge Jesus lays out for us this morning. The old story, of the ancient Chinese warlord who ordered his general to go make war on a city and destroy it and it’s entire population. About a week later the warlord went to the city to check on things. The city gates were wide open, which made him smile; but when we went in he saw his general and soldiers having a banquet with all the people of the city. Now furious, he demanded an explanation.
To which the general replied, “ I did exactly as you ordered, as you can see or enemy is totally destroyed – they are now our friends.
Or there’s the story about the man who bought himself a hobby farm and was walking about checking things out on his 10 acres, when he met his new next-door neighbour.
And the new neighbour said to him, “Don’t look now, but when you bought this piece of ground you also bought a lawsuit with it, because as far as I’m concerned your fence is 10 feet onto my property.”
The new owner smiled and said, “ I thought I’d find some friendly good folks up here, and I’m going to. And you’re going to help me. You move the fence to where you think it should be and send me the bill, and we’ll both be happy and we’ll be friends.
These are the kind of stories that put flesh on the bone of Jesus’ sermon this morning. But I ask myself, you ask yourself would you do the same? It’s hard to love people who want to be your enemy, even before they know who you are! It’s hard to be nice to people who have deeply hurt you.
William Bausch a pretty good preacher used those stories to set up a sermon he once preached that he titled; “My enemy, the church!”
Let’s be honest, which one of us hasn’t at one time or another been hurt by what’s happened down at the Church? I remember well telling my father that I watched a couple of boys raid the ladies choir room for the cash in the purses they found. I remember better, when the same two boys, sons of a new, well to do family at the church, claimed; and you can guess it – that it was me who’d stolen the money. I remember even better, the priest believing them and not me, my father asking me if I was sure, telling me the priest was coming for a visit that same Sunday afternoon, and me telling my Father that, the priest coming would be his problem cause I’d told the truth and if that sob didn’t believe me – then I was done with him and his church; all said as I walked out the side door of the house – I only returned when I saw the priest leave. Wednesday of that week, my Father got a phone call from the two boys father, he was calling to apologize to my dad, his sons had confessed. No one ever apologized to me. I was at church singing in the choir the next Sunday. But, let’s be honest, which one of us hasn’t at one time or another been hurt by what’s happened down at the Church?
And haven’t we had our share of disappointments down at the church to. Dorothy Day who was a modern day saint of the Catholic Church for her social justice advocacy and work with the poor in America, found herself in Church one Sunday morning in New York city with a friend of hers. The priest wasn’t very good at running the service. He had no sense of reverence, and his sermon was extraordinarily boring. The whole morning was simply terrible. On the way home the friend was wondering how Dorothy Day would react. After walking for a bit in silence, Dorothy Day simply said, “If the church can survive priests like that, it just goes to prove God must be real and must be with it.”
I’d like to think that most weeks I’d rise above that sort of experience, but I’ve had my weeks of less than brilliance – you know how it goes – everything that could go wrong did go wrong. And you expect on those Sundays that you’re going to hear it at the back door. But you know there are those folks who always find a ray of sunshine no matter what;
Pat walked toward me on one of those Sunday mornings, she shook my hand and said, “Father, your vestments are just beautiful this morning!” Thank God there is always one amongst us who can save the day! And maybe that’s the point.
One writer commenting on the Church wrote this: “ I am sad at her sins as I am at my own. I am wary of her penchant for intellectual and spiritual repression as I am of my own fear of power, and my primal resentment of criticism. I find writ large in her life my own struggle, my own good and evil, my own truth, and my own life.”
And isn’t that the truth – and shouldn’t we be gentle with one another and our judgements when we’re down at the Church.
William Bausch concluded his sermon by reading two letters, the first written to him, the second his response. The went something like this:
Dear Fr. Bausch:
Strange letter, but I’m an infidel, really, a Unitarian, who just happened to wander by your church on Christmas Evening at the request of a lonely widow who wished to pay her respects to God and her late-departed while being bolstered by some companionship by me. So I acted out the part, with doubts beforehand. You see, I had attended a Catholic Mass in my youth with another, younger lady, and had jumbled, rather distasteful memories of high ritual, babblings in Latin, great ceremony, and very little in which I felt the slightest understanding or empathy for.
And then came Christmas at your parish. You preached a very direct and human sermon without any mumbo-jumbo, with several allusions which brought a smile to my face and an unexpected lump in my throat. There were a bunch of kids and not-quite kids singing carols with evident joy. The responsive prayers were simple, understandable, all in English, and obviously felt from both the lectern and the congregation. Strange – very strange.
You see I’m a cynical man with a good scientific education and a very dim view of the future of humanity and I found myself feeling a resurgence of something I can only call hope….. thank you for that service and that hour. My compliments and my respect.
You needn’t bother answering this letter, really. I wrote it because I wanted to and hoped It would make a bright spot in your day. Besides you’re busy, and I’m incorrigible.
Thanks again Charlie.
Fr. Bausch thought about that letter for a month, and even though Charlie said there was no need to write back, he did.
As a sometimes infidel myself (faith’s other side is doubt), I knew that, as you suggested, I needn’t bother answering your letter. Then why do I find myself, exactly one month later, doing so? Many reasons, I guess.
First, I was moved by your charity to that lonely widow, charity that led you to a Catholic church, something your instincts would no normally allow.
Second, I was moved by your being moved by words, children, joy, mostly, I would guess, the boldness of a gathered people who would dare rejoice even while aware of notices of betrayal in high places, both church and state; and nuclear bombs which still hang over our collective heads. Finally, I was moved by your very act of communicating your presence and feelings.
There were others like you in that gathering – and in our gatherings every weekend. Some of our choir aren’t even Catholic. A few of our lectors have known the pain of divorce. Some are recovering cynics and worse. Some are single, like myself, who have found family. And some are just fellow travellers who have come to the conclusion that if they do not know where the answer is, they know where it is not.
Not in technology alone, nor in the latest revolution, and certainly not in the salvations hawked by the media. Instead they sense that more of an answer, if there is one, will more likely be found in community, in caring, in celebrating; and for us that means gathering around the ancient wisdom of one who died for what he believed in.
Anyway, I’m taking the liberty, not knowing your tastes or journey, of sending you what I think might be an interesting book. You can return it read or unread.
Meanwhile, you’re an interesting fellow pilgrim. You comfort and tantalize at the same time. Something is moving in your life. Follow it. You have my wishes, and more than that, my love and prayers. Fr. Willliam Bausch
The good father concluded his sermon with these words. “So here we are: the church of Jesus Christ. At times we are friendly, at times we are hostile and hard to be around . But still, we love each other. We love the church: our mother, our friend, and our enemy. We love the church because we find writ large in her life our own struggles, our own good and evil, our own truth, and our own lives.” And when Jesus preaches like he did this morning we find an enemy in the Church – one we surely love – but an enemy all the same who is calling us into a new a community, and new way of being in this world. Parts of which we’re pretty unsure of; but we’re here all the same – because we love the church: our mother, our friend, and our enemy.