Sunday, February 20, 2011

“Going the Extra Mile” (Matthew 5:38-48)

Today’s sermon is about going the extra mile. Well, I want to hear from you. When did someone go the extra mile for you? When did someone go “above and beyond” what was expected in order to help you, welcome you, show you hospitality, comfort, or love?
There are a number of stories in scripture about folks going the extra mile. In Genesis, there is a story about Abraham, and about how he and his wife Sarah went the extra mile to show hospitality to three visitors.

When Abraham saw these three men, he got up from his tent and ran out to greet them. They were strangers to Abraham; he did not know that they were really God-in-disguise. Yet he ran out to greet them and offer them hospitality.

Without even thinking about it, Abraham and Sarah transformed their humble home into a five-star hotel. They brought food and water to their guests, plus more water for washing. Keep in mind that this water didn’t just come from the tap; it had to be fetched from a well and carried who knows how far. And the bread, it didn’t come from Vons or Ralph’s; it had to be baked by hand.

Then Abraham took a calf—one of his best—and had a servant prepare a meal for the three men; and then Abraham himself stood by the three men as they feasted. Abraham himself waited on them, making sure they had everything they could possibly need.

Now that’s going the extra mile.

Those of you who know the story know that Abraham and Sarah received a great blessing that day. They took it upon themselves to be a blessing to their guests, to bring joy to their guests by sharing what they had; and in the end, they themselves were greatly blessed. They themselves received much joy.

When the men left, Abraham journeyed with them a ways, to make sure they got off alright. The men arrived at the town of Sodom, where Lot, Abraham’s nephew, went the extra mile to show them the same level of hospitality that Abraham had. The men insisted that they were perfectly content to pitch their tents in the town square, but Lot urged them to stay at his house, to allow Lot to serve them. The men agreed, and Lot made a feast.

Soon there was a pounding at the door. A whole gang of ruffians – practically the entire town – was demanding that Lot send his guests out, so that they could show those visitors their version of Sodom hospitality.

Well, if you thought Lot went the extra mile before, it’s nothing compared to what he did next. He went about three more miles by offering to send out, instead of his guests, his own daughters – his own flesh and blood – to the mob outside his door, in order to protect his guests and the vow of hospitality he had made to them.

Despite what you may have heard, this is what the story of Sodom is really all about: it’s about hospitality, and how one man – Lot – was willing to go the extra mile to show hospitality to his guests, even when it was unspeakably difficult to do so; even when protecting his guests and honoring his vow of hospitality came at a great cost to him and his family.

Another story about going the extra mile comes shortly after Jesus’ crucifixion. There are two people in this story. One is named Cleopas; the other is not named, although some scholars believe it to be Cleopas’ wife.

The two of them are walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, which the scripture says is about seven miles. Walking, as I’ve learned, provides a great opportunity for conversation,… and even though my sons complain when I show up to get them at school without the car, our walks home provide the best conversations of our day, often our only real conversations of the day.

Anyway, Cleopas and his unnamed companion were walking, talking about all that had taken place, when a stranger came near and went with them. They invited this stranger to join in their conversation, and the three of them talked all the way to Emmaus.

Upon reaching their destination, Cleopas and the other traveler noticed that the stranger with them was set to continue on; apparently he still had some distance to travel. Because it was late, they urged this stranger to stay the night with them.

They welcomed him into their house, prepared a meal for him (imagine preparing a meal after walking seven miles!), and invited him, this stranger, to offer the blessing. The stranger then took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them. It was then that they recognized this stranger as none other than the living presence of the crucified Christ.

By going the extra mile, showing hospitality, and seeking to be a blessing to the stranger in their midst, they in turn were greatly blessed. In sharing what they had, they found much joy.

In the scripture we heard this morning, Jesus takes that ancient virtue of hospitality, and goes (as he so often does) one step further. Hospitality to strangers is challenging enough; but Jesus says: do more. Show hospitality to evildoers. Show love to your enemies.

In the kingdom of God, this is how you are to act. When you act this way, the kingdom of God is present.

If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. Now I’ve heard people explain to me that, in order to slap someone on the right cheek, it would be a backhanded slap, since most people are right-handed and would slap with their right hand. It is the way a superior person would slap an inferior person. But when the left cheek is turned, the one doing the slapping is forced to use the front of their hand, the palm, something that is a bit more intimate, something that requires to one doing the slapping to recognize the common humanity that both people share.

Make of that what you will. I think just the fact that you are willing to turn the other cheek, to bear yet another blow, will by itself allow them to recognize your common humanity, and to re-examine their motives. It’s nonviolent resistance at its best.

If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give them your cloak as well. Giving them your cloak is going the extra mile. It is offering to them that which they did not even demand from you. Do it with a genuine spirit of love, and even the most hardened heart will be softened at least a little by your gesture. Granted, it is hard to show love to your adversary, but if you can do it, you will inspire many.

If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. In the days of Roman occupation, soldiers could demand of any person that they carry their gear for up to one mile without compensation. A soldier could come up to you and demand that you carry his equipment for him as he journeyed, for any distance up to one mile.

Jesus says to go an extra mile. It would be hard for a soldier to maintain his hardened heart in the face of such an offer. Solders were the bullies of the first century. They were used to ordering people around and having them obey. Soldiers were not used to having people offer to do even more than what they were required. They were not used to anyone going the extra mile for them. Indeed, it is even possible they could get in trouble with their superiors, since the law said they were only allowed to force one mile upon people.

No one, really, expects you to go the extra mile. Except for Jesus. No one expects you to go beyond what is expected or required. No one expects you to do more than what you have to do, with complete selflessness, with no regard for yourself. No one really expects you to love enemies, and to pray for those who persecute you.

Except Jesus. Because Jesus knew that going the extra mile is incredibly powerful, that there is a great spiritual power at work there.

Gandhi used this power to great effect. He loved his enemies. He walked the extra mile for them. One of Gandhi’s adversaries once told Gandhi: “I do not like your people, and do not care to assist them at all. But what am I to do? You help us in our days of need. How can we lay hands upon you? I often wish you took to violence … and then we would know at once how to dispose of you. But you will not injure even the enemy. You desire victory by self-suffering alone and never transgress your self-imposed limit of courtesy and chivalry. And that is what reduces us to sheer helplessness.”

That is how battles are fought in the kingdom of God.

I have heard that Martin Luther King, Jr., when he was in jail, he often befriended his jailers. He never showed anger toward them, but treated them as fellow humans, caught up in a society of injustice; humans who, no matter their race, needed freedom from oppression.

I know that the apostle Paul, when he was in jail, likewise befriended jailers. Once, when God caused an earthquake that damaged a prison to the extent that Paul and the other prisoners could easily escape, they instead remained there with the guard, knowing that their escape would mean death for the guard. Awed by their willingness to go the extra mile for him, the guard who was keeping them prisoner, the guard fell one his knees, and, trembling, asked them how he could find salvation and wholeness in his life. Paul shared with him the news about Jesus, and brought joy into that jailer’s heart.

This month – and today in particular – we focus on the work of Week of Compassion. Week of Compassion is the name given to our disaster relief, refugee and development ministry, and for over 65 years, Week of Compassion has been going the extra mile for those in need.

One example: long after most media have forgotten about the earthquake in Haiti that took place a year ago, Week of Compassion is still at work helping with the recovery process that will last for many years to come. The picture on the screen is of a girl named Caitland, carrying water back to her family in a camp for people left homeless by the quake.

The money you gave to Week of Compassion last year has helped to provide vital food, water, medical aid, psychosocial care for those traumatized by their loss, assistance for people with disabilities, and more. Houses are being rebuilt. And because Week of Compassion has developed strong, long-term relationships with other aid organizations in Haiti and throughout the world, an already-established network of these organizations has helped make our response even more efficient.

Another example: Here in the United States, floods last year in Nashville devastated entire communities. Week of Compassion responded immediately, and continues to support individuals and congregations in the area ministering to those in need, providing volunteers as well as volunteers to feed the volunteers.

These are just two of many examples of the way Week of Compassion goes the extra mile to help those in need. We go the extra mile, because it’s what Jesus taught us to do. We go the extra mile, because that’s how we make God’s kingdom come on earth. We go the extra mile, because it brings blessings and joy to us and to those we serve.

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