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Epiphany 7 February 19, 2017 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
In his lively book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill notes that one of the remarkable effects of the evangelization of the Irish, of their becoming Christian in the fifth century, was a perceptible drop in violent conflict. At one time, the Irish – not unlike almost every other culture – worked with a wide view of retaliation when a competitor or enemy did harm. “You take out my eye; I chop off your hand and ears. You knock out my tooth; I split your head open with a sword.” It was heroic work on the part of Patrick and his Christian monks to instill a different practice of punitive justice: if you take out my eye, I can only take your one eye – no chopping off your hand and ears. Knock out my tooth, and my response is limited to the exact same action. It was their desire to break the spiral of violence that prompted the Christian monks to plant in the Irish psyche another way of living with each other. But it was even more difficult to convince a people, whose cultural stories were marked by blood feud and gruesome war, of the value in Jesus’ exhortation to turn the other cheek, to offer no resistance to an evildoer. For this could be interpreted as nothing less than a sign of weakness and who would ever want to be known as someone who voluntarily chose to be weak? Indeed, such advice would seem to go against every effort to strengthen a sense of personal agency or “empowerment.” Well, that is, until the monks reminded their Irish friends that the Lord Jesus himself died a heroic death by turning his cheek toward his enemy and did so with a power far greater than armed aggression – who did so with the power of undying love for those who thought themselves to be his enemies. I wonder: is that true, that love is a power greater than aggression?
If you and I were to walk into the Basilica of St. Francis in the medieval hilltop town of Assisi, we would find in the lower church a chapel devoted to the fourth century saint, Martin of Tours: Martin whose names was given to Martin Luther and then to Martin Luther King, Jr. Martin of Tours came from a military family and followed in his father’s footsteps by entering the Roman army of the fourth century. But, in the eyes of his parents, he made a terrible mistake by entering a Christian church where he heard this exhortation of Jesus: “If anyone wants to sue you and take your tunic, give your cloak as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” And this: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”  It was this collection of exhortations that began to shape Martin’s conscience for he knew that Roman soldiers could force citizens to carry their heavy military gear for one mile. How odd, then, to hear Jesus extend this burden a second mile. Was Jesus attempting to subvert the power of the more powerful one, the soldier, to take the “wind” out of demand? “One mile, you say? I’ll gladly go two miles” – and in that unexpected statement from a powerless non-combatant, is it possible the illusion that “Might Makes Right” begins to dissolve.?
It was this collection of exhortations that led Martin, a decorated officer, to resign his commission. “I am a soldier of Christ and cannot kill another human being,” he declared. He was promptly charged with cowardice and dishonorably discharged from the army. At the beginning of Lent that year, he became a catechumen, a person preparing for Holy Baptism. His biographer notes that while he was considering the dramatic change that would happen in his life once he was baptized, he encountered a near naked beggar on the road. Without prompting from the man, Martin took his thick and capacious cloak and cut it in half, draping it over the shoulders of the trembling beggar. That evening, awakened from sleep, Martin had a vision of the wounded and risen Christ, a vision of Christ clothed in the cloak Martin thought he had given to a beggar trembling with cold. “Martin, you have clothed the weak with your strength,” said Christ to the startled veteran, “ and have made the weak one strong.”
“Love your enemies,” says the wounded and risen Christ in our midst today at a time in which the people of our nation are sorely divided against each other. Indeed, the skeptic in each of us may well ask, “Why love anyone who is so manifestly wrong in his or her convictions?” But then I hear the voice of Patrick and his ancient monks asking this of you and me: “Will you expand the spiral of violence or seek to break it?” For you must know that the command to love your enemies does not absolve us of our own cherished convictions. For this love is not happy sappy naive love. Rather, it is the kind of love that recognizes the presence of God in the enemy and, at the same time, steadfastly holds to the conviction that the love of God is greater than any form of aggression.
What did our brother, Martin Luther King, teach us with his words but more importantly with his actions? “Engage the enemy with non-violent and compassionate resistance.” I wonder, then, if can you see them in your mind’s eye: those thousands of black high school students in Alabama, standing silently, arm in arm, withstanding the fire hoses, the police dogs, and the barbaric accusations of their allegedly Christian tormentors and so teaching the nation by their heroic witness to offer non-violent and compassionate resistance to unjust laws?
Dear friends, has it ever dawned on you that what we do here in this sacred liturgy is actually the rehearsal, week in and week out, of our commitment to love the enemy and become activists for peace? “We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves,” we confess. “The Peace of Christ be always with you,” we say to each other. “Lamb of God,” we sing, “you take away the sin of the world: grant us peace.” Yes, you who inspired Patrick and the Irish and Martin  of Tours and Martin Luther King and the black teenagers of Montgomery, Alabama, teach us to do that which is impossible without  your grace, to recognize in that which at first may seem so unlovely your unexpected presence; teach to profess our convictions with love, only love. Amen.