7th Sunday after Epiphany
February 20, 2011
In October 2006, horror struck the peaceful community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. A man, Charles Roberts, angry at God for the loss of his baby daughter nine years before, walked into a school and began to shoot children, killing five girls and wounding another five. When the police came, he killed himself. This story could have happened anywhere in the world. But it didn’t. It happened in an Amish community, and the children that died were the children of Amish Christians. Before the day was over, several women came to the home of Roberts’ widow to comfort her in her loss and to care for her and her children. Men from the community went to the home of Roberts’ parents to console them in their grief. And when Roberts was buried, half the people at the graveside were Amish. They said it was just the right thing to do.
This was a shocking act in the world to which we are accustomed. Especially in our country where individual freedom is treasured over community, to not get even, to not be sure to get what you deserve is almost sinful. Greed is so much the norm in our society, that we hardly recognize it anymore. People are expected to fend for themselves, buyer beware. If you aren’t smart or careful, you could lose everything. Regular practices of doing business benefit the business at the expense of the customer. It is so common that we hardly even think about it.
Contrast our system of doing business with the Levitical (Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18) law: leaving the edges of the field and dropped produce for those who had no support. Not misrepresenting your products or disrespecting God name. Paying wages in timely fashion so people can live and providing access for those who are disabled. Not giving preferential treatment to any but dealing honestly with all. In short, God says, love your neighbor as yourself – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Be holy, for I am holy.
But the world doesn’t work that way, does it? Jesus as interpreter of God’s law, really goes into detail. Not enough, he says to limit revenge to mirror the offense. Rather one must turn the offense upside down and give more. Getting even is not how God acts, so getting even is not how God’s people act.
This is not sissy stuff. Jesus was talking to people who were under oppression by the Romans. Roman soldiers could take over your house. They could require you to feed and clothe them. They could require you to run errands for them, or physically offend you at any time. So, Jesus says, if you are hit, don’t hit back, but turn the other cheek. Do not respond to your persecutors in their own fashion, but elevate the incident by being righteous.
Religious people have tried so many ways to dodge these commands. We explain them away as a set of values to which his followers should aspire. We see them as revealing the impossibility of righteousness, driving us to Christ and God’s grace. Or see this as spoken to certain people in a specific time, something which no longer applies in a modern world. Or maybe we see it as a way for those who are victimized and oppressed – not us, of course – to be reconciled to waiting for their reward in heaven.
But I don’t think that‘s it at all. This text is hard. I think that Jesus really expects his followers to be like him. He is the ultimate example of not answering violence with violence. God is the perfect model of giving life to all, even those who are undeserving and ungrateful and evil. Jesus stands up to evil by not giving in to it, and in his torture and death, reveals it for what it is. In his resurrection, he seals the deal, creating new life for all who trust in him, by conquering evil and the damage it does once for all. We live in the new world which Jesus created for us, and we hardly even see it, and we rarely extend ourselves to be part of what it requires of us.
The Amish families and their community who were so wounded that day in October come from a long tradition of forgiving. It is hard-won. When they first stepped out of society in the 16th Century to live the religious life they felt called to, they were severely persecuted by both Catholics and Protestants. Many were horribly martyred for their faith. And they still refuse to be defined by the evil which assaults them. A year after the tragedy, the Amish community of Nickel Mines issued a statement: forgiveness is a journey, they said, you need help from your community, from God, and sometimes even from counseling, to not become hostage to hostility, for hostility destroys community.
Their example embarrasses me as much as it impresses me. It became so newsworthy because it is so uncommon. I wonder what would happen to our national debate if we as a Christian community used Jesus’ principles and God’s law when we thought about undocumented workers and immigration reform, about living wages for workers and health care, about how banks do business and about people in other countries struggling to gain democratic government at the risk of our interest in stability in the region. I wonder if our conversation or our actions would change. It is a good thing that God forgives my lack of love and generosity. This Christianity stuff is not for sissies.
Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.