Sunday, October 21, 2001

"Going The Second Mile"
Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, October 21, 2001
Texts: John 13:6-17, Matthew 5:39-41


By virtue, I think, of the necessities and vicissitudes of life, there are many things that we have to do in this life that we simply do not enjoy, but which we must endure.

I was thinking about that this past week, for it is going to be my birthday and some kind souls have decided that they want to throw a party in my honour. There is only one problem: The shine of such events loses its glisten after the age of 40 and one can only think that one is now beginning one's declining years and parties are just a celebration of that.

However, when I echoed this to one of my friends, he retorted: "Well Andrew, it's better than the alternative, don't you think?"

To that, I said: "Amen. I should learn to be grateful." There are things we endure but don't always like although, I must say, I await the cake with great eagerness.

There are things that catch you by surprise and there are things, therefore, that you have to do as a result of that surprise, and you just have to do them, whether you want to or not.

I was thinking about an incident about three weeks ago, when one of my dearly beloved cocker spaniels, Digby, a very friendly soul, decided that he wanted to enter into a rather intimate relationship with a gorgeous black-and-white creature that was roaming along our back garden. Being the outgoing kind of canine that he is, with his ebullient and loving personality, he decided to lick said black-and-white animal, only to get the shock of his life and be squirted on his ear by said skunk. Before we knew where we were, he came whimpering into the house and went running from one end to the other.

I can assure you the language and the thoughts that were whirling around in my imagination, if not my mouth, while I was bathing him were unrepeatable in this particular sanctuary! There are things we just have to do even when we least expect them.

All of us, to some extent, are forced in this life to deal with things that we don't like, to be obligated to do things that we do not want to do. Simply, that is the nature of human existence.

Yet, despite all the demands on our lives, despite the fact that there are people in our society who, because of economic forces, are unfortunately unable to care for themselves, despite the fact that there are people who are physically and mentally challenged, who daily have to endure hardships and suffering, for the most part, in the country in which we live, we are free. Despite our obligations, we are free to move from one end to the other of this great land without anyone asking for our passports or deciding where we can go. We are free to associate with anyone that we might desire to associate with.

As I was walking through a shopping mall this past week, on a display promoting a particular product there were two young people dancing with one another, and they were of different racial origins. I couldn't help but think back to my days in Cape Town, when I was a university student and attended Intervarsity Christian Fellowship gatherings on the campus.

I'll never forget one day when we were having our Bible study and then we decided to have a time of fellowship and hold a dance. There was a particularly nice young woman who had been very active in the group whom I went very innocently towards and asked if she would dance with me. I saw a look of horror on her face as I made the request.

I thought: "My gosh, I'm surely not that repugnant, am I?" only to realize that I had forgotten this young girl was classified as coloured. It would be a crime for her to dance with me in a public setting.

We are free in this country to associate with whomever we want, whenever we want, wherever we want. We are free in this country to speak as we wish, to express our views, even if they are contrary to those that are being expressed around us. These are great freedoms. These are things that we should cherish and very often we take them for granted.

So many people spend their time complaining about the minor obligations that they have, when they forget that the context in which they live is one of immense freedom and dignity and harmony. We are a blessèd people.

This is in stark contrast to the times in which Jesus lived. The times in which Jesus lived were anything but free. He lived in a nation that was an occupied country; that had one of the world's greatest and most powerful and indeed one of the most vicious of all empires running its own land. One of the signs that they were in control was that there was a law that said that if you were a Roman, you could demand of a Jew, or of anyone from the occupied countries, that he carry a bag for you for one mile; that you as a Roman could conscript a Jew and force him to carry your bags for one mile.

Now in that context, we have our passages this morning. Our passages this morning really speak about Jesus' profound statement about how you live in a world where there is this kind of tyranny, where there is this kind of injustice.

One of the clearest examples of the Roman tyranny was actually on the day of Christ's crucifixion. We read in one of the gospels that the Romans seconded, or conscripted, a man called Simon of Cyrene to carry the cross for Jesus.

Now, we know very little about Simon except that he was from Cyrene, which is in North Africa, so he was probably black. He would have been a Jew coming to worship his God at the Passover time in Jerusalem, but as he is there, he is conscripted by the Romans to carry the cross for the robbers and to carry the cross for one particular person who was deemed worthy of execution - and his name was Jesus of Nazareth. Simon of Cyrene, then, was one of those people who was conscripted to carry the most awful burden in history, the burden of the cross.

Now, in the light of all of this, Jesus of Nazareth starts to talk about something radical. In the world in which he lived, where people by force of tyranny were forced to go one mile in the service of the Emperor, Jesus came along and he said to them: "When you are demanded to do such things, you must not only go one mile, you must go the second mile." In other words, when tyranny points its finger at you and determines things from you, rather than simply resist, you should show up the tyrant for what he is and shame the tyrant by going not only the one mile as requested, but also a second mile. When you are brought before the Romans, and when you are beaten, you turn the other cheek, and when it is demanded that you give the shirt off your back, you not only give the shirt, you give the cloak as well. You shame those who in their tyranny point their finger at you because that is the way that I, Jesus of Nazareth, want you to live.

My friends, I think that this message of going the second mile is a radical message to the disciples of Jesus Christ. Even in the freedoms that we have, even in the world in which we live, it seems that in all relationships, in every facet of our lives, the word of Jesus to go the second mile is a clarion call to put our commitment to him first and foremost.

But the thing that I have often found striking about Jesus of Nazareth is not only that he is a wise teacher with good, kind words saying to you: "Go the second mile. Do that extra good," he is also someone who actually demonstrated it in his life. And because he demonstrated it in his life, he is saying that the one whom you follow is as important as the deed itself. Indeed, whom you follow is very important.

There is a wonderful story told by Steve Farrow(and evidently it's a true story) of a photographer who worked for a magazine and was given the task of taking photographs of a very bad bush fire. He was told that if he went to the airport there would be a plane waiting for him and his editor wanted him to lean out of the plane and take the photographs as the dusk was starting to set. So the photographer went down to the airport and saw a Cessna in the runway. He ran over and hopped into the plane and said: "All right, let's go. I'm ready."

So the pilot said: "Very well." He started to head the plane into the wind and they started to soar into the sky.

The photographer said to the pilot: "Now I want you to dip very low, just above the flames, in order that I can get the most wonderful photograph."

The pilot said: "Why? Why do you want to do that?"

The photographer said: "Well, I'm a photographer. These are the things I have to do. I want you to get as close as humanly possible."

The pilot looked at him and said: "You mean to tell me you're not the flight instructor?"

You've got to be careful whom you follow, don't you? Things can easily lead us astray. That is why I think the person of Jesus of Nazareth is so winsome, because he doesn't just ask us to follow blindly. He actually says "Follow me" but not only "Follow me," but also, "Do what I do."

In the passage that was read for us a little while ago from John's Gospel, the most clear example of going the second mile is found. We read in John's Gospel, in this particular setting, that it was the Passover meal and Jesus was gathering with his disciples, probably in the upper room, and he does something that most hosts at a meal would have a servant do. He took a towel and put it around his waist and he began to wash the feet of his disciples.

But one of the disciples, always the most outspoken one, Peter, took great exception to this. "Who are you, really," he said, "to be washing my feet? I have no right to allow you to do this. You are my [he uses the word] Rabbi. You are my [to use the Greek] Kyrie. You are my Lord. Surely it should be the other way around."

On the surface, you want to empathize with Peter, for it seems to me that the Lord of Life is not someone who should be serving us, but is someone who should, in fact, demand our service.

But Jesus is trying to send a message to Peter. He is sending a message that the very nature of discipleship is the nature of following his example and Jesus speaks radical words to him. He says: "No servant is greater than his master." In other words, Peter, if I am willing to wash your feet, then if you are to follow me, then that is the pattern. It is one of service.

There is a line written by William Blake where he says:

Humility is only doubt
That does the sun and moon blot out.

Peter had a similar view of humility. He did not see this as an act of faith. He saw this as an act of complete and total irrelevance.

Jesus challenges him and says: "No, Peter, I must do this."

Finally Peter capitulates and says: "All right then. Well, not only wash my feet. I'm a sinner. Wash all of me then."

Jesus says: "I know that you are clean in the rest of you, but still I must bathe your feet."

Why was Jesus so adamant? He was so adamant because He was sending a message. He was sending a message that has echoed throughout the history of the world. It is a message to, for example, the Judas Iscariots who were going to deny Jesus. It is a message that if they are going to follow they are to follow someone who is willing to humble himself and become a servant. It is a spiritual message about humbling ourselves before God and not thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought, but giving ourselves in order that God's will might be done.

There is a wonderful message told by Martin Luther when he tried to explain this. He told the story of two goats who are on a hillside, walking around a mountain. They are on a very narrow path. On one side of the path is a very high wall, and on the other is a cliff that drops off very sharply. The two goats meet each other as they come around the bend and they face each other. As they face each other, they realize that they can't turn around and they can't turn back, so they are faced with a dilemma.

Martin Luther said if these were human beings, they would probably bang heads until one of them would submit and the other one would be able to walk by. But, he said, the goats are smart. One of the goats decides to lie down and allow the other to walk over him and thereby both of them are saved.

When Jesus was washing his disciples' feet, he was laying himself down in order that others might be saved. He was pointing in what is known in Latin as the pedilaium (ceremony of foot washing) ultimately to the cross. He is saying: "You are no greater than me, Peter, and all of you, as disciples, are no greater than me. For the message that I am bringing to you is that you will have to go the second mile if you are to be my disciples and you will have to lay yourself down in order that others might be saved."

So I think, my friends, that from this profound message there is a clear example of how we as Christians should live our lives, in every facet of our lives.

This morning at the contemporary service, Dr. Deborah Pepler gave a magnificent presentation on the problem of child abuse in our society. It was very moving and also very frightening at the same time. It seemed to me as I was listening to her and she was talking about the need for compassion in our families, that the example needs to be set by the leaders of families to go the second mile: not to teach our children to climb over others, but to teach our children to give of themselves for the sake of others; for parents and for people who are the leaders within families to demonstrate by their own sense of servanthood, and by their own sense of submission to the authority of God, not to use power to lord it over others, but to set the example of sacrificial love.

It seems to me that families that really live in harmony and peace are families that understand the very principle of Jesus Christ: that you give of yourself first. Then you are in the position to demand other things.

I think if children in our society can see this in adults, if they can see it in their parents and in their teachers, if they can see it in their clergy and in their leaders, that going the second mile is in fact the greatest good, that going the second mile is the way to peace and reconciliation, that by going the second mile and submitting yourself to the authority of God first and foremost is the way to peace and harmony, then we are setting them an example that they will be able to carry into the world for generations to come.

I fear in this society, where we talk about power in a sense where we talk about prestige and wealth as the greatest good, we are losing that very thing that Jesus demonstrated when he washed his disciples' feet. But I think it applies to the Church as well.

One of the things that has moved within the Church over the last few years is the need for equality among our members and I'm all for that. There is to be an equality of rights and there is to be an equality of say, but there is not an equality of obligation. The obligation is always with us to serve first. One of the great difficulties I find within the Church, one of the things that we are struggling with, is that we are trying to tell people we will meet their needs first. First you feel good about what you are doing, and then you serve. But the Master, the Lord, the Rabbi, the Kyrie, the one who died on the cross, says: "No. First humble yourself and then you will find your reward. First follow me. Whatever it might be that you have to leave behind, leave it. Leave it. Do not be egocentric. Do not be concerned about yourself. Come follow me. If you do so, you will find life."

I also think it is true within our culture.

This past summer I returned home to Nova Scotia. I was having dinner with some friends of mine and we were talking about what they thought at that time, and this was August, was the most monumental thing that had ever happened in the history of Nova Scotia. One of my friends said that there was no doubt in his mind that it was the crash of Swissair Flight 111 off Peggy's Cove.

He said: "You know, the most amazing thing about this, Andrew, was it seemed that the whole province and the whole region just came together out of a sense of compassion and love."

But he told a story about one of the local fishermen, who himself was a Christian and was one of the leaders of the fleet of boats that went out to try and find survivors. God bless those rugged fishermen. They went out in all manner of waters to try and save lives where they could. Many of them faced danger and a loss of income for what they were doing but they went anyway.

Even when the search was called off, this fisherman decided that he was going to continue to go. He said that in all the trips he made, the only thing that he ever found was a doll of a little girl who must have died.

He brought this back to shore and they placed it in one of the local churches as a reminder of the tragedy, and they prayed every day for the families.

But a few weeks later, after all the fuss had died down and the people from Switzerland and the United States had returned home, the fisherman went to a meeting that had been organized in the community to talk about fish quotas. All of a sudden, the fishermen who had been going out to find dead bodies had forgotten what they had faced. They argued and they fought and they struggled about the price of fish.

He said: "How easy it is for people to be so filled with emotion and sorrow one moment, to go the second mile and to reach out and be united just like the people in New York City were - and the next moment, for them to forget and revert to their old ways."

The fisherman said to my friend: "You know, it seems to me that the only way that people will in fact go the second mile as a part of their lives is if they know someone that they should follow, and that that commitment to follow is not just for today, is not just within the confines of the Church, or our family, it is every day and in every situation in which we find ourselves. If they know that the call of Jesus to go the second mile, to bear the burdens of others, to give of oneself, is at the heart of the very cross that he himself was willing to bear."

My friends, it is obvious. Business people in this community have been telling me for the last few days and weeks that we are going to be hitting some difficult times. Our society is going to be having layoffs. The recession that has set in is hurting our economy and there are going to be people who are in need.

It seems to me, as one who follows Jesus Christ, that our ministry to them, our ministry to the world as individuals and as disciples, is at all times to remember the one that we follow, to go the second mile, to give of ourselves as Jesus the Lord gave of himself.

To that Lord, be all honour and glory and majesty and praise. Amen.

This is a verbatim transcription of the original sermon.