A sermon for February 19 on Matthew 5:38-48
It is good to be back. I want to offer a word of thanks to our staff team—Larry, Kalyn, Carolyn, Jaylene and Rachel—for all that you did over these past five weeks to keep things rolling along here at saint ben’s, and to Helen and Allison for stepping in to serve as presiders for the Sunday evening liturgies. To all of you as well, for supporting me in taking that extended time of retreat. It was a very significant and transformational time for me, and as the coming seasons unfold I will continue to unpack all that I learned, finding ways to bring it home.
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When I first turned to look at the readings for tonight and discovered that this reading from the Sermon on the Mount was our appointed gospel, I could only smile. Again, Jesus? You see, over those five weeks it seemed that just about every time I listened to a sermon or prayed a psalm or opened a book, it was as if the words had been written specifically for me, at that moment, in the contemplative and reflective work that I was doing on my retreat.
It began at the very first chapel Eucharist that I attended, on just my second day in residence at King’s College. The preacher quoted Abba John of the Desert, a fourth century desert monk, who said, “We have abandoned a light burden, namely self-criticism, and taken up a heavy burden, namely self-justification.” Did you get that? “We have abandoned a light burden, namely self-criticism, and taken up a heavy burden, namely self-justification.” Self-criticism, by which Abba John meant a willingness to be utterly honest with ourselves about our own failings, weaknesses, and—yes—sins. That’s a light burden, because in honestly recognizing such things in our lives we can be forgiven and placed back on our feet to start again. It is a posture radically open to grace and healing. The heavy burden of self-justification, on the other hand, is a posture that is always burdened. You say to yourself, “well, who could possibly blame me for this?” and suddenly selfish and self-destructive patterns are justified as being somehow just fine… for now, or in this circumstance, or whatever. It is a holding on to anger or unforgiveness, justifying those resentments in the name of righteous indignation. The heavy burden of self-justification protects the poison that is infecting us, rather than having it drained through an honest soul-searching self-criticism.
That insight from Abba John all but sang through my five weeks of retreat, steadily calling me into a posture open to grace; a posture that put me “under the mercy.”
Within a day or so, my spiritual guide for the retreat—Gary Thorne, the King’s College chaplain—put a book in my hands, which I was to read as a focus for my prayer. It was a book about St. Silouan, an early 20th century Russian Orthodox monk who had spent most of his life in a monastery on Mount Athos, the autonomous monastic state in Greece and home to some twenty Orthodox monasteries. This big book was part biography and part an overview of Silouan’s own unique spiritual journey, and the most striking thing for me was his insistence that the most important thing—the most needful thing—is to love your enemies.
Now remember, we’re talking about a monk here, who had lived a simple and rather austere life in a world inhabited by monks and visited by pilgrims and seekers. How many enemies could he possibly have? It is a bit like my own experience of praying the psalms, which is something I do every morning. There’s all of those psalms that speak about enemies and foes and adversaries attacking me or speaking ill of me or persecuting me, often with a corresponding prayer that God take vengeance on them and put it right. But do I actually have any enemies? Sure, there’s people that I don’t necessarily see eye to eye with, and people who kind of bug me or irritate me or frustrate me… but foes? Enemies? People who really want to do me harm?
Yet here is this Orthodox saint, freely confessing that this was his greatest challenge, the most important thing he needed to do in order to place his life under grace.
About midway through my five weeks of retreat, I spent three days at a small Orthodox monastery in rural Nova Scotia. Just three monks, and I inhabited the one spare bedroom that is available for guests. The abbot of the little community is Father Luc, and he’d been a monk for 40 years. He is lovely, gentle, thoughtful and kind man, and in one of our talks he was delighted to discover that I was reading about St Silouan. “What do you find most striking in his story?” Father Luc asked me, to which I replied that is was his steady insistence on forgiveness of enemies. “Oh yes, it is so important. And just when you think that you have learned to do that, you have to learn again and learn deeper.” And again I found myself wondering how this gentle man could possibly have enemies.
Yet the theme was unrelenting over my time there, as it wove in and out of the Abba John’s call to set aside the heavy burden of self-justification and maintained a sort of steady conversation with the texts of the three daily services I attended in the College chapel. Kings College consistently uses the Book of Common Prayer, which has a highly penitential and confessional tone, calling the community to honest soul-searching and ongoing repentance. “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table” reads a prayer the congregation offers right before going forward to receive communion, and you can just imagine the howls of protest coming from the self-help gurus who want to build your self-esteem and encourage you to follow your own bliss. “We are not worthy… But thou art the same Lord, Whose property is always to have mercy.” I can be quite a mess. I fail and I fall short and I get blind or indifferent to the hurts and sorrows of the world around me. I sometimes protect the poison that is infecting me, rather than letting the divine physician lance the boil and let the poison drain. But for all of that, “thou art the same Lord, Whose property is always to have mercy.” You see there’s freedom in that little word “but.” Once you begin to pray that sort of text with real honesty, smug self-justification goes up in smoke. Then the soul-searching begins.
I believe what Jesus is doing in this gospel text is cultivating a very particular posture in those who would follow him. As Stanley Hauerwas puts it, “To be a disciple of Jesus, to be ready to be reconciled with those with whom we are angry, to be faithful in marriage, to take the time required to tell the truth—all are habits that create the time and space to be capable of loving our enemies.” Yet there’s that word again: enemies. Do I have enemies? Well, maybe not of the sort of which the psalmist speaks, who set out to intentionally do me harm. But have I been hurt by people? Are there pieces of forgiveness and reconciliation yet to be worked through? Absolutely. Always more ground to be covered, because even our closest and most trusted friends are human, and they can fail us or hurt us or offend us, even without knowing it.
“Be perfect, therefore,” Jesus say, “as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Here Hauerwas comments, “Perfection does not mean that we are sinless or that we are free of anger or lust,” to which I’d only add, “thank goodness”, because otherwise I’d never measure up. “Rather,” he continues, “to be perfect is to learn to be part of a people who take the time to live without resorting to violence to sustain their existence. To so live requires habits like learning to tell one another the truth, to be faithful in our promises to one another, [and] to seek reconciliation.”
During my time of retreat, I had a lot of time to think through and pray through and journal through and read through this kind of claim to discipleship. Most days it was a good ten or twelve waking hours on my own in my rooms in residence, and some days were just long and hard. But it went deep, and it was good. So very good.
And it is indeed very good to be home.