Living together in Community; Matthew 5:38-48; Delivered February 19, 2017

About five years ago, I was at my bank branch, at the teller window, depositing some checks.  On this particular visit, the nice teller asked me if I was in the market for a credit card. The bank was offering a new one.  The points I would earn on this credit card would go toward paying down my mortgage.  “What a deal,” I thought to myself.   

That’s how I came to be sitting across a desk from another employee at that bank branch.  He looked to be in his mid-to-late 20’s, nicely groomed and wearing the requisite banker’s suit and tie.  I told him I was in the market for that particular credit card. Now, in a normal banker/customer exchange you get a few minutes of friendly banter, right? about the weather maybe, or traffic. “Boy, what a back-up this morning!”  In fact, though, as soon as we introduced ourselves, his name was Zach, his eyes became fixed on his computer screen.  Our conversation went something like this:   Zach said: Full name.  I gave him that;  Address: I gave him that, too:  Phone number:  and so on and so forth.  As I gave him the information, he in-putted it on his computer.

Then Zach got to the nitty gritty.  He asked after my finances beginning with: Income. 

Now here, I should tell you, as I tried to tell him, I don’t have one income. I have several incomes—my income is not a blanket; it’s a patchwork quilt.  It’s not a river, it’s tributaries—and some of these dry up—like now—when no one is getting married. What indeed WAS my income? Sad to say, I had never really figured it out. My stress level shot way up. I tried to explain my dilemma but Zach wasn’t interested.  He simply said again, only more slowly this time, and a little louder. “Your in-come.” I did some mental gymnastics and gave him a number, not a wildly inaccurate number, but nevertheless, not a carefully thought out number.  That satisfied him. Then Zach said, “Employer.”  Ok, this too is rather difficult, since I don’t have one employer and one of my employers, is me, myself.  Again, I tried to explain my dilemma, and again, Zach couldn’t have cared less.         

The painful back and forth exchange continued until all the little boxes on Zach’s computer form were filled in.  Whew!  As I recall, there was no handshake at the end of our brief exchange.  I left the bank branch feeling extremely off-put, small, financially fragile and anemic, and with little expectation that I would get my credit card.    

A few weeks later, I got a form letter in the mail.  My credit card application had been denied. No surprise.  I fumed for a day or two and then I phoned the bank’s national office and explained my situation.  I suggested the bank run a credit check if they had any doubt as to my financial stability—and I pointed out that in fact the bank was holding my mortgage. I had always made my mortgage payments on time.   I got an apology from the nice person at the other end of the phone line, and in a week, finally, I received my card.  No thanks to Zach.  The entire credit card application process took something like three weeks.  

A few months later I was at the same bank branch.  I needed to order some checks for my business. I said as much to the bank teller. “I can’t do that here, but Zach can help you,” and she pointed to Zach’s desk.   AGH!!!!!! 

I demurred. I explained to the kind teller that I felt Zach had done me wrong.  She offered, “If he hasn’t been helpful in the past, don’t you think you should tell him?  How else is he going to learn?” 

So Christian-esque, right?  Give him another chance.  Turn the other cheek.  Go that extra mile to salvage what could possibly have been the beginning of a beautiful, if not friendship, at least the beginning of a beautiful work-relationship.

Which is how I came to be sitting across from Zach at his desk a second time. After re-introducing myself, I told him about what I perceived as a totally unsatisfactory first exchange between us. Even before I got to the part about the denied credit card application though, Zach’s defense was at the ready.  And so I said, “Don’t defend yourself.  Just listen.” Which is good advice by the way.  When people are angry with you, let them vent first. AND be sure the angry person knows you are listening.  It’s even helpful to repeat what the other person says, as in, “I understand that you were unhappy with the service I provided,” or something like that. That’s straight out of pastoral counseling 101.  

Zach DID finally listen. I said my peace. I suppose I had shut him up for good, though—he didn’t say much of anything else.   I left without ordering my checks.  I ordered them on-line.  And now?   I do my business at a different bank branch.  Yes, Jesus said, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, but he also said, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town (or bank branch—my words).  My feet are now dust free!  

It occurs to me, that every day I am faced with exchanges like this—customer (slash) service-provider exchanges, some good, some bad but for the most part impersonal.  I’m talking about my exchanges with grocery store clerks, doctors, nurses, bankers, dentists, dental hygenists, garage mechanics, waiters, waitresses, plumbers, electricians, and accountants.  In many of these business exchanges I am to the people who serve me no more than a telephone number, an address, or an income level.  And to me, the one on the receiving end of the business, those who serve me, are little more than the work they do, either well, or not-so-well. My day-to-day life is punctuated with impersonal relationships.  Sad, but true. 

That’s not at all what Jesus had in mind when he delivered the scripture passage before us today.  Barbara Essex is a Bible Commentator.  She says, regarding this passage:

God’s community is filled with people who think of others first.  Every decision and action is carried out for the common good.  Each person is sister or brother to the other and acts out of love.  The capacity for this kind of love is due to the empowering love given by God, who is love.  We are able to be gracious, forgiving, hospitable, and generous because we are children of the God who showers us with abundant grace, mercy, love and protection.

Well said; poetic, even, but difficult, maybe even impossible to live out. Of course we are grateful for God’s love and care.  But do we really have to give as God gives, to love as God loves?  And, we DO get to choose who we are forgiving of, generous toward, and hospitable to, don’t we?  

But of course, I am talking as a city dweller, which I am, not as a small town dweller, which you are.  It occurs to me that one of the good things, the blessed things about living in a small town, and I say this as an observer, one of the good things about living in a small town, is that you are working and living among people with whom you also do business. The people who bag your groceries and stand behind the bank teller counter are also your neighbors and your fellow Chamber and lodge members. They are your fellow food bank or Boys and Girls Club volunteers.  In this small town environment, Christ’s message of love and mercy, then, is critical to functional, harmonious living. If you have differences, you have to work through them. Metaphorically speaking, there’s no other bank branch for you to go to.   You are forced to grow your souls.

As someone has said, “Living in a small town...is like living in a large family of rather uncongenial relations. Sometimes it’s fun, and sometimes it’s perfectly awful, but it’s always good for you.” 

Churches are like that, too, especially small churches like this one.  For good and for ill, we are committed to each other.  When you joined this church you gave your pledge.  As church members you must to find a way to live harmoniously together, or the churchfolds.

A church I served, Cove Presbyterian, has a long history, even longer than this one, believe it or not.  It was founded in 1769.  Sadly, records from its first decades are missing, but I did read through some Session meeting minutes dating back to the mid-eighteen hundreds.  Laborious reading, those.  Faded ink on yellowed sheets of paper.  The words were written in a difficult-to read-fanciful pen—and all the “s”s look like “f”s. You know what I’m talking about.  Once I became acclimated to the reading challengesthough, those minutes proved to be highly entertaining.  One entry was especially memorable. The Session was embroiled in a debate. I forget what. The clerk of session wrote that the debate spilled out onto the church’s front lawn and that the matter was settled with “fisticuffs.”  Fisticuffs—isn’t that a great word?  Fisticuffs.   Not exactly turning the other cheek.  However, and this is a big however, at least they cared enough to duke it out—and not just walk away.  And I assume that the parties stayed in relationship afterward—since the church still exists—going on two hundred fifty years now.

When we can turn the most cursory, impersonal of relationships into friendships we are doing as Christ commanded.  When we decide to stay in the fray, that is, to not walk away, that is doing as Christ commanded.  When we decide that our most difficult exchanges can become teachable moments, then we are doing Christ’s work in the world. In this increasingly fractious world we live in, republicans vs. democrats, city dwellers vs. small town dwellers, rich vs. poor, you who are town dwellers, and all of us who are Christians, have important lessons to share with the world--in how to get along. And here I should just say that a major part of scripture, has to do the art of just getting along.     

The last line of our passage for today is this:  Be perfect therefore, just as your father in heaven is perfect. Perfect. Now I realize that’s enough to make us throw up our hands in despair and even write off the entire passage.   Just like we can’t live in harmonious relationships all the time, we can’t always be perfect. Has Jesus created a hurdle for us that is beyond our mortal capabilities to clear?    

Perfect.  The word that has been translated into our Bibles as perfect, actually does not exist in Aramaic—and Jesus would have delivered his sermons and taught his followers in Aramaic.  So what did Jesus say that was translated into the Greek as teleios and then into the English as perfect?    Best guess is that Jesus said, as it is recorded in Luke, “Be merciful, in Hebrew that word is sedek, in Greek it is oik ter mones.  Be sedek, merciful,  just as your father in heaven is merciful.      

Still difficult maybe, but not impossible. As Christians demonstrating to the world a better way to live, we must surely try to be merciful, to all those with whom we are in fact, brothers and sisters.  That is the truth.  Amen