A sermon by The Reverend Barbara Mraz

February 23, 2014

St John the Evangelist Episcopal Church

St. Paul, Minnesota

This is a sermon about love.

It is about love because that is where today’s lessons led me, and also because of a recent event in my own life.

While we usually think about love in emotional terms, as a feeling, as a state of the heart, when we speak about being “in love” or “falling out of love” or talk about the joy and pain most kinds of love can bring, that is not the focus today. Today the focus is on the logic of love; specifically the logic in the way God loves us.

I have always been comfortable with and enjoyed logical argument and have been quite good at it—sometimes at my peril. I’m interested in facts, comfortable with statistics, and have taught courses in debate and persuasion. Yet there is one person who is a master at beating me, and whom I take on with trepidation. This would be my younger daughter Emily.

Emily is very concerned with what she eats and recently announced she was a “pescetarian” (no meat, only fish). I had bought some super-healthy granola bars in the hopes they would pass her inspection. I proudly read the ingredients to her, then had to pause. “Wait, palm kernel oil is okay right?”

“Okay for us.…. Bad for the orangutan habitat…”

“Wait, you’re changing the argument here! Now we have to consider animal habitat when we read labels? How do you know these things?”

“Science, Mom. Science. Don’t worry about it. Worry about the orangutan environment.”

Relationships demands perseverance, and without perseverance, we may not see the logic of God’s love. The lesson today from the Hebrew Scriptures is the Leviticus version of the Ten Commandments: you shall not steal; you shall not lie; you shall not swear using God’s name; you shall judge with justice; you shall not take vengeance; you shall love.

For most of us, our instinct is to hear these statements as God laying down the law (literally), with a stern if not threatening voice. Some of us may hear Charlton Heston as Moses, thundering down from the mountain with the stone tablets in The Ten Commandments. If I remade that movie today, I would cast Russell Crowe as Moses. Whoops, he’s already playing Noah in a new film – that would be confusing. Okay, then, James Earl Jones.

But what if we heard the Commandments in a different way, in a soft, loving voice, as a cautionary tale instead of admonitions written in stone, as a loving parent, as Morgan Freeman or Mr. Rogers might advise us:

“Do not steal.”

“Do not lie to anyone.”

“Do not treat poor people differently than you treat rich people.”

“You shouldn’t try to get back at people.”

“Do not kill…. Please.”

It is that almost pleading tone of voice which makes us understand today’s Psalm which ends: “Behold, I long for your commandments.”

In fact, the whole Psalm is a plea for help with living:

Teach me.”

“Give me understanding.”

 “Incline my heart to your decrees.”

“Turn my eye from watching what is worthless.”

“Give me life in your ways.”

It is logical as well as loving for God to offer us the gift of these commandments. It is what a caring parent would do, and at some level we are hungry for them.

Today’s Gospel lesson is another matter. Here it appears that Jesus is making the ancient Jewish teaching even more stringent than it already is in the Hebrew Scriptures.

“You have heard it said,” Jesus says, referring to Exodus 21, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” This reference goes back 2000 years before the time of Jesus to the Hammurabi Code of ancient Babylon. It was originally formulated to limit the scope of public punishment and personal retribution for wrongdoing, or as Leviticus 24 says, “The injury afflicted is the injury to be suffered.“That is, one eye for one eye, not TWO eyes for one eye.

Gandhi observed that “an eye for an eye” makes the whole world blind, and Jesus also rejects this line of reasoning as he continues: “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” It sounds like Jesus wants us to just stand there and take it, as our enemy beats on us. But this is not it.

The theologian Walter Wink points out that the key to understanding this statement is that Jesus designates the right cheek.

He explains that it is assumed that you only hit people with your right hand because in Jewish society at this time, it would be unthinkable to hit someone with the left because the left hand was used only for unclean purposes.

So if someone hit you on the right cheek with their right hand, it has to be a backhand blow more like a slap. The intention is clearly not to injure but to humiliate, or put someone in their place. The backhand slap on the right cheek was the usual way of admonishing inferiors. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, their wives; parents, their children; Romans, the Jews.

But to offer the left side of your face after being slapped on the right put you in a different relationship with the oppressor. Then you were a human being instead of an inferior who would be slapped on the left cheek. Offering the left side of your face to be hit signaled that you were an equal, not an inferior, and that you had no intention of running away, and more human dignity than to respond in kind. Hence the term “cheeky.” (1)

Once again, there is a logic here. Jesus is saying that people will come after us, will attack us, but in that exchange we can force them to acknowledge our humanity and our stature in the process. For thousands of years, this has remained the core of all teachings that follow on nonviolent response.

It can take perseverance and work to mine the ways of love, to search what underlies Scripture, and appreciate the logic of God’s love.

Perseverance, yes, and also a willingness to be vulnerable.

The word “vulnerable” comes from the Latin word for “wound” and it is an intentional surrendering of power or position for a greater goal.

Granted, this is easier for some of us than others. It is different from generation to generation. I know that if my mother knew some of the things I have shared in groups of people or with therapists, her restrained, dignified Lutheran self would be as horrified as I am about how much she kept bottled up.

But Jesus? Through his vulnerability, his openness to people and how he felt about them, Jesus showed us how the Creator feels about us. My favorite evangelical, Philip Yancey writes that, “In Jesus, God gave us a face and in that face we have an answer to the question if God cares.” (2)

Three times that we know of, suffering brought Jesus to tears. One was when his friend Lazarus died; the second was when he looked out on the holy city, Jerusalem and realized what was in store for it; the third time was on the cross when he offered up loud cries and tears to the One who could save him but didn’t.

Again there is a logic to the admonition to be vulnerable. We are not given feelings only to suffer but to bring us closer to each other and to God.

The Lutheran pastor and anti-Nazi activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis at age 39 after years in prison, only 23 days before the German surrender. Among his many writings is a poem called “The Unfilled Gap.” I am quite certain that the reason I first came upon this poem when I did, last Thursday, less than three weeks after my younger brother’s untimely death, was to give me an insight into the pain that accompanies grief. This is the poem:

“Nothing can fill the gap

When we are away from those we love and it would be

Wrong to find anything

Since leaving the gap unfilled preserves the bond between

Us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap

He does not fill it but keeps it empty so that our communion

With another may be kept alive even at the cost of pain.

This, too, has a logic about it, although not the logic we may want; it is about being faithful and vulnerable to the vacancy of loss.

In the time since my brother died, I have come to understand that whether or not to accept comfort is, to some degree, a choice. I’ve been given the choice several times. Circumstances too clear to be coincidence have emerged—the the stock boy at the grocery store the day after the funeral wearing a big name tag with the same name as my brother’s; signs of presence that are subtle but sweet like the geranium blooming overnight beneath the kitchen shelf Gordy made me right before he died; words, and I do love them, that appear on a page out of nowhere and seem written expressly for me. Why, in all this time, after reading some much of Bonhoeffer’s work, did I never read this poem until now when I really need it?

And each time these things happen, my first instinct is to say, “Yes, but…it could be my imagination…” Yet the great agent of humility that is pain makes it possible to smile and wonder if my little brother is still messing with my head, as he always did.

When I have chosen to accept the comfort offered me, there has been rightness about it, even a little peace. I am almost certain I know the reason that Gordy died when he did, at a relatively young age for our family, and there is a divine logic to it, although the reality of his absence is no less wrenching.

John Updike, the novelist, refers to the vulnerability to which love dooms us all, but notes that being vulnerable and open to other people is also a choice. It is a choice the Anglican scholar and writer C.S. Lewis refused at one point in his life and accepted at another.

When he was nine years old, C.S. Lewis’ mother died. The pain of losing her was so intense for the young boy that from that point on he shut down his emotions, building a thick wall between himself and the world so as not to be hurt again. His weapons became his intellect and his talent.

In his late forties, Lewis met a divorced American named Joy Gresham and fell deeply in love with her, only to learn soon after that she had bone cancer. Over the months, it got worse and it became clear she would not recover.

On one of her better days, they picnic in the English countryside, awash in the sights and sounds of spring, and Joy lays it out. She tells him she’s going to die and that it will be really hard, but Lewis waves his hand and says he’ll manage. Joy stops him and says, “The happiness now is part of the pain then. That’s the deal.”

It takes Lewis a long time to come to terms with Joy’s death and ultimately he says, “Why love, if losing hurts so much? I have no answers other than the life I’ve lived. Twice in that life, I’ve been given the choice, as a boy and as a man. As a boy, I chose safety. As a man, I chose suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.” (4)

But it’s not the whole deal.

In Jesus, the face of God aimed in our direction, we are promised that the love we feel more intensely than anything in our experience, that love whose equal is not known in human life, that love for which we would die if someone else could live and for which Jesus did die, that love will win. How can we possibly believe otherwise? Logically speaking.


(1) Walter Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence, 2004.

(2) Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, 1995.

(3) “The Unfilled Gap” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer cited in Beauty by John O’Donohue.

(4) Cited in Finding Faith at the Movies by Barbara Mraz, 2004.

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