Sheryl Sandberg has stolen from Jesus. As usual, Jesus is pretty gracious, and as far as I know, Sheryl hasn’t yet been struck dead, but you hear the words of Sheryl’s best-seller in our Gospel text for this morning: “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile” (Matthew 8:41). Sandberg is the COO of Facebook and author of the book “Lean In.” Her message is more specifically about women in the workforce and in society, but she’s tapped into something much larger, deeper, and more important than how to narrow the gender gap in Fortune 500 companies.
Part of what made her words so popular is that they don’t quite line up with the messages that we’re used to hearing from secular sources. She challenges her readers that when doors start to close, you should stick your foot in them before they shut completely, when someone won’t answer you, knock harder instead of walking away. Women throughout history have been known as the necks that move the heads of state; gaining ground through unofficial back channels–there are plenty of examples in the Old Testament alone. To face problems head-on and refuse to back down is how Sheryl asserts women should tackle the last hurdles toward gender equality. This is not the way that most women have been taught to respond to resistance; giving away a shirt is not the way most people have been taught to respond to someone who demands your coat.
Of course her audience is women in the workplace, and the dogged ambition that motivates the message might raise some concern, but I wonder why we don’t approach God’s message with the same ruthless determination. Through Jesus, God teaches us a new kind of math in this Sermon on the Mount: meant to awake in the hearer the story of Moses and Mt. Sinai, Jesus gives a new summary of the law here in the fifth chapter of Matthew. You hear again and again the refrain, “You have heard it said… but I say to you…” Jesus is painting the picture of the Gospel as clearly as he can: when someone wrongs you, lean in. When someone steals from you, lean in. When all sorts of evil comes your way, batten down the hatches, turn your face toward the rain, and let it do its worst.
The strength to face these trials comes not from ourselves but from God, through the Holy Spirit. It is only when we’re leaning on God that we can lean in to the kinds of lifestyle that Jesus is outlining for us in the Gospel lesson today, and that’s what the whole of Scripture is about.
In our Old Testament reading today (Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18), we hear about the ways that God set out for his people, the Hebrews, to behave. They were to avoid corruption and deception, they were to be generous and fair to each other, to the less fortunate, and to the strangers in their midst. At the end of each exhortation or law, there is a refrain, “I am the LORD.” It refers back to the beginning of the passage, where God says to Moses, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2). It’s a sort of shorthand, you see–every line, every law that’s being laid out by Moses to the people on God’s behalf is about holiness. It’s about living in a way that imitates God, that makes the world holy like God is holy. That’s what being “sanctified” is–being made holy.
Even back in Leviticus, God knew that we humans weren’t quite capable of being holy on our own. God says that his people will be holy because of his own holiness–the promise that God made back in Leviticus came true when Jesus arrived on the scene. That’s part of the reason why Matthew’s gospel draws so many lines back and forth between the Old and New Testaments–he wants his readers to see clearly that God is fulfilling his centuries-old promises in the person of Jesus Christ.
So, how do we live these words that God has given us today? How do we “lean in”?
The truth that we know deep down, that we see witnessed to in the pages of Scripture, and that we hear in our prayers every Sunday, is that we can’t “lean in” on our own. We can’t make ourselves do any good thing apart from God’s power through the Holy Spirit. We’re helpless to our selfishness, our desire to keep our coats, to do the bare minimum required, to ask for our possessions back as soon as we lend them out.
And so, we pray. We use the words that God himself taught us through Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer, we use words that faithful people throughout time have used in our Book of Common Prayer, we use our own words, offering up our souls and bodies to be used by God.
What does God do? He sent his son, our Lord Jesus Christ; we disciples take this gift into our own bodies in the Eucharist every time we gather here together. He sent the Holy Spirit to transform us into holy people, to give us strength to lean in when we have got nothing left. From the beginning of God’s relationship with people, he’s always told us that he is only as far away as we push him; he’s always standing just as close as we’ll let him, ready to give us the strength we need to face whatever evil may throw at us to try to destroy us.
“You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45). No matter how hard evil and violence push, God pushes back with peace and love. Through his strength, which we gain in prayer and in our sacraments, we can push right back, too.
We have learned through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that when death–the greatest evil–does its worst, God’s power is still stronger. Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God; this is the truth upon which each of us may stand–and when we do, even the gates of hell cannot prevail against us (Matthew 16:16-18).