What Will It Take to Win?

Joanna M. Adams
Pastor, Morningside Presbyterian Church, Atlanta

Opening Sermon to the Southeast Regional Covenant Conference

April 1, 2005
Matthew 5: 38-48

I have been a preacher for some time now, but before I was a preacher I was a teacher.  At the ripe old age of twenty-one years and two months, I was hired by the Atlanta public school system to teach sentence diagramming and Silas Marner to high school students who had seen my type before: enthusiastic, inexperienced, and much more in love with Shakespeare’s sonnets than they were.  They were tolerant, though, and we had a great time together. In exchange for my trying to teach them not to split infinitives and other important matters of life and death, they most graciously taught me a few things, not the least of which is that nobody wants to hear much of anything after 3:00 in the afternoon. That undeniable fact stared me in the face as I anticipated what you and I were scheduled for this afternoon at a decidedly post 3:00 hour, after most of us have traveled most of the day.  Some of you, I know, got up very early this morning. Some of you, I know for a fact, stopped along the way and ate Butterfingers.

What I decided to do was to turn the pulpit over to someone who really knew how to stand and deliver, no matter what the challenge.  When he spoke, lives were transformed.  When he spoke, the forces of darkness retreated on their puny little pointy feet.  When he spoke he spoke, emperors flew into rages.  Since he spoke, the world has never been the same.

You know whom I‘m talking about. Jesus was his name.  The kingdom of God was his subject.  Actually, he himself was nothing less than God.  No wonder the crowds gathered around him any time of the day or night and hung on his words.  No wonder, the sine qua non of sermons is the Sermon on the Mount, the grandest collection of his teachings, which was nothing less than the revelation of divine will.  In that sermon, he instructed the disciples as to how they were to live and shape their communities and made it clear that the only empire that really mattered was the empire of God. He outlined what the redeemed life, both individually and collectively, would look like after being shaped by his own courage, compassion and commitment to justice.

There is no more wake-you-up-with-a-bucket-of-cold-water passage in the Sermon on the Mount than the one that is before us this afternoon.  “Do not resist the evildoer.”  Anybody here think that’s a good idea?

And how about this one:  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your father in heaven.”  Is our God-given identity really directly related to our capacity to love our enemies?  Goodness, I hate hearing that.

I remember hearing someone a few years ago who sounded alarmingly Jesus-like. The place was Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the spiritual home of Martin Luther King, Jr.  The occasion was an interfaith service for healing and wholeness after a terrible shooting in our city.  A day trader in a local brokerage firm had gone berserk and killed a number of people at the financial center on Piedmont Road.  The speaker at the service was a short man from South Africa named Desmond Tutu.  After his presentation, there was a time for question and answer. A minister friend of mine went to the microphone and asked with understandable anger and frustration: “Bishop Tutu, what are we in the United States going to do about the NRA?”

Bishop Tutu paused, looked upward for a moment, and then said to the questioner, “The first thing we are going to do is to remember that every single member of the NRA is a beloved child of God.”

It can be a real pain to be subjects of the empire of God.  It involves doing a lot of things that just don’t come naturally. 

Jesus said that followers of his would not seek retaliation, even though every nerve in our bodies says go for it!  Remember what Jesus is doing here.  He is doing Biblical interpretation, shedding new light on the ancient word of God in light of the Word of God that is him or he, as we English teachers prefer to say.  Here, he is putting his new shine on the old teaching from Exodus about restricted revenge.  The law, called lex talionis, which means “the law of exact equivalent,” was intended to limit the revenge exacted for a harm done to be no greater than the harm done.(1) For instance, if someone blinds you in one eye, you ought not to cut off that person’s entire head.  You ought to stop with blinding him back.

What Jesus does is invite his disciples to move to higher moral ground.  When the Roman officials who, under their law, could commandeer your stuff, don’t try to figure out how to take revenge on them.  Don’t be passive either.  Resist them with non-violence.  Confound the powerful with your dignity and generosity.  In other words, let your enemies bring out the best rather than the worst in you.(2)

The late J. Randolph Taylor, a great pastor, seminary president, and Presbyterian Moderator, used to tell the story of the rainy night he and his wife Arline were driving to the beach along a curvy coastal road.(3) A car approached from the other direction, headlights on bright.  Randy blinked his lights to signal the other driver to dim his headlights, but the light continued to blaze as the car came closer.  Randy blinked again; the approaching lights kept blazing.  In frustration, Randy picked up his left foot (these were the days when the dimmer switch was on the floor) and prepared to stomp down on the button and blaze his lights in the other driver’s eyes.  Then he thought to himself, “Randy, are you going to let that fellow’s behavior drag you down to his level? You are a better man than that.” 

Oh Covenant Network, let us resist with all our might the indignities and the injustices being delivered by the many and the powerful in our day, but let us not ever slam our foot on the button of retaliation.  What will it profit us to give in to our frustration and lose the way of Christ? 

Our love must reflect the indiscriminate love of God.  Love your enemies, not just your neighbor, not just those whom you agree with and get along with.  Pray for those who persecute you.

 “Live generously and graciously toward others, just as God lives toward you.” (4)  Is not this the message for our denomination at a time of particular bitterness and division, fragmentation and disillusionment?  “Live generously and graciously toward one another, just as God lives toward you.”

Should we stand up for justice and inclusion?  Should we try to win the struggle about the Constitution? You bet your life we should; but we should not do it, we cannot do it Jesus’ way, without love.

Frederick Buechner has written that “in the Christian sense, love is not primarily an emotion but an act of will.  When Jesus tells us to love our neighbors,  he is not telling us to love them in the sense of responding to them with a cozy emotional feeling. . . and in his terms, we can love them without necessarily liking them. . . . And then there is love for the enemy — love for the one who does not love you but mocks, threatens, and inflicts pain.  The tortured’s love for the torturer.  This is God’s love.  It conquers the world.” (5)

You have heard it a hundred times before, but God-like love, agape love is the key to the Christian life and the Christian community.  Without it we are noisy gongs or clanging cymbals.

What will it take to win?  It will take love to win.  I believe that the real goal of the Covenant Network must be far beyond the repeal of G-6.0106b. Our goal must be redemption.  It cannot be anything less than reconciliation.

I am encouraged in this direction by a worker for justice and preacher of the message of Jesus who spoke at the Holt Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama one night in December of 1956.  “A great deal had been achieved in the months just past.  The Bus Boycott had achieved its goals. The Supreme Court had assured African American organizers the victory in their year-long protest of Montgomery’s segregation laws.” (6)

“It seems that God has decided to use Montgomery as the proving ground for the struggle,” Martin Luther King, Jr. said that evening.  “The old order is passing away,.and now we have before us the glorious opportunity to inject a new dimension of love into the veins of our civilization.  There is still a voice crying out in terms that echo across the generations, saying, ‘Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, pray for those who despitefully use you, that you might be children of your father which is in heaven.’”

King went on to urge the people in the movement to keep in mind that the boycott and its achievement did not represent the goal.  The goal was reconciliation. The goal was redemption.  The goal was the creation of the beloved community. “If I respond to hate with reciprocal hate, I do nothing by intensify the cleavage in the broken community.  I can only close the gap by meeting hate with love.” (7)

Christ-shaped love:  That is what the church is all about and what this current struggle in our beloved church is all about.  This is not about a decision on our part.  It is about a decision on God’s part.  Knowing human beings as I do, I find it amazing that God would choose to be represented in the world by such dubious, inadequate, self-righteous characters as human beings, individually or in groups, but the church is God’s idea. The church has nothing going for it on its own, but behind it stands nothing less than the power of Jesus Christ, who lived and died and rose again from the dead and makes all life-giving things possible. 

It was late last night when I finished this sermon, and as my head drooped over the computer screen, a old song started singing in my head: “What kind of fool am I who never fell in love?”  I could not think of the next line, but the first was enough to be a message to me, which I pass along to you today.  What kind of fools would we be if we did not allow ourselves to fall into the vast, deep sea of God’s everlasting love?  Call it the “immanence of agape.” (8) By its embodiment in Jesus Christ, God changed the world.  We, in our lifetime, have the great privilege of being sustained by its power and living its reality in the church and in the world.  Thanks be to God! 

Benediction,
from Dr. King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail:

In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill, three men were crucified. We must not forget that all three men were crucified for the same crime — the crime of extremism.  Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment,  The other, Jesus Christ was an extremist for love, truth, and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment.”  Let us go forth from this place to live and serve as extremists for love, and may the peace of Christ be with us all now and forever more.

(1) The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Text Commentary. 
(2) Eugene H. Peterson, The Message, NavPress, 1993. 
(3) Dr. Taylor was an early and stalwart support of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians from its founding until his death. 
(4) Ibid. Peterson. 
(5) Wishful Thinking and The Me in Thee 
(6) Charles Marsh, The Beloved Community, Basic Books, 2005, p.1. 
(7) Ibid., p. 2. 
(8) Ibid., p.40.

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