One of the many things I like about having come to this stage of my life is a greater freedom to take some risks. The precedent has been set, by those who have gone before. Standing on this very spot in fact. In recent sermons both Bill Adams and Tom Johnson referred to words sung by Tina Turner. I’ll blame them if this doesn’t work out. The risk I’m taking today is to compare a line from a movie spoken by Jack Nicholson with a phrase from today’s gospel lesson. Never thought I’d be comparing Jesus with Jack Nicholson, or should I say Jack Nicholson compared to Jesus. So here goes a casual little conversation with Jesus about today’s gospel lesson, which begins abruptly:
Jesus says, “But I say to you that listen.” Oh wait Jesus. Give me a minute. Not sure I’m really listening. I’ve got a whillion things to do today. I’m pretty distracted right now, not sure I have time to clear out my mind to give you my full attention. I only have 15 minutes for Bible reading this morning and with all I’ve got going on right now it’ll take me a lot longer than 15 minutes to really get into this. So what’s your point?
Jesus ignores my rudeness and continues on: “But I say to you that listen, love your enemies.”
My Lord! I should have known that coming. How you go right to the hard stuff. Not sure I have any real enemies though. I mean there’s the usual suspects, probably Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping (Shee-jin-Ping) of China, but probably not anyone closer than that. Oh wait, there are some politicians in this country that I consider enemies. I’ve mentioned them to you in the past, but you’ve left me with the impression that maybe my real enemies are closer to home.
Jesus counters with, “What about the people you disagree with?”
“Well, “ I reply, “I disagree with a whole bunch of people but I don’t know any of them personally. I know, I know. I live in a bubble. I’m well aware of that. We’ve discussed that many times already. I rarely even have a conversation with someone I disagree with about anything,” I offer as a feeble excuse.
At this point, I decide to see if another Bible translation can shed some light here, by which I mean make this a more palatable scripture to read. The Message translation says it like this: “To you who are ready for the truth, I say this: Love your enemies.”
“Ready for the truth,” Jesus repeats. “To you who are ready for the truth.”
That was when Jack Nicholson’s line in the movie “A Few Good Men” popped into my head. So I Google the quote, and sure enough it’s so famous that three YouTube clips in varying lengths come up. I choose the shortest one to watch, just to refresh my memory of the context. Jack Nicholson is on the witness stand in a court martial case of two young soldiers. The defense attorney played by Tom Cruise, a fresh out of law school junior officer in the Navy, is backing Jack Nicholson’s character, a Marine commanding officer, into the corner with a clever maneuver of evidence. Tension rises, the trap is about to spring, as Tom Cruise finally shouts: “I want the truth!” to which Jack Nicholson immediately shouts his famous line: “You can’t handle the truth!”
It’s a desperate self defense of deflection: “You can’t handle the truth” turned back on a junior officer, followed by an eloquent but patronizing explanation of what Tom Cruise, and presumably all of us can’t possibly understand because we don’t bear the same weighty responsibilities as a commanding officer. It’s an almost convincing speech of self-justification. You can’t handle the truth. I can’t handle the truth
But the drama of the movie is not what I’m hearing here with Jesus. Jesus does not shout a demand for the truth from us. He simply states a condition: You who are ready for the truth. You that listen. You that can pay attention, and really hear.
There is a teachable moment for hearing truths. A teachable moment happens when we are able to take in something we need to learn, when we’re receptive to really hearing, really listening. Many of us know about selective hearing- people who are losing their hearing and use “selective hearing” as a defense against admitting they can’t hear. Selective hearing is hearing what we want to hear. We use selective hearing all our lives, and it’s not always a bad thing— sometimes we need to tune out unwanted noise. Selective hearing and the teachable moment go hand in hand. Every person who has tried to teach or train a child, a spouse, a partner, any other relative, a friend, a dog, a cat, or a parakeet has to use the principles of the teachable moment and selective hearing. Success depends on it. And if, after numerous attempts the lesson or information or behavior we want a child, a partner, a friend, a dog, a cat, or a parakeet to have is not received we might come to the conclusion that they aren’t able to get it, they are unteachable. We may get frustrated and give up or blame ourselves, or take out our frustration on some innocent bystander, or even worse punish the unteachable learner.
But Jesus does not do any of those things. Instead he says, “I say to you that listen.” There is no condemning shout of “You can’t handle the truth!” or even “You’re too dense to ever understand this.” There is a patient understanding that says maybe now is not the right time. Jesus knows about our selective hearing. The Master Teacher knows there are teachable moments for all of us, but he doesn’t leave it at that. I think a better term for God’s way of dealing with our not listening is the REACHABLE MOMENT. The reachable moment that goes beyond information, the moment that hold something deeper than head knowledge.
The God of all love does not arrange difficulties or even tragedies in our lives to get our attention. Rather, there’s the patient but straightforward presence of Jesus saying, “I have some truths to tell you —when you’re ready to listen.”
The Master of Reachable Moments stays with us and makes us ready to listen. We’re usually the ones who make it difficult. Reachable moments come when Jesus reaches into our stony hearts and our distracted heads. Reachable moments come when some piece of our selective hearing is healed, and when some scales fall from our eyes blinded by ignorance and prejudice. Reachable moments come when we’re finally ready to give up on a “my way or the highway attitude” and our own fabrication of what is right and what is true. Reachable moments happen when the mysterious and often unseen, unfelt process of a powerful love makes us ready to receive God’s truth because the God of Reachable Moments does not give up in frustration like we do. In fact, he has promised never to leave us or forsake us. Neither death, nor life, nor things present, nor things to come, NOTHING in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Nothing.
Ten days from now is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. The Church’s calendar repeats every year reflecting the nature of the God of Second Chances, and third chances and fourth and so on. The season of Lent reminds us there is a Master of Reachable Moments who allows for practice and gives us the grace of do-overs. The Master of the Reachable Moments didn’t shout at us when we didn’t even get to how to deal with our enemies, or the Golden Rule, or not judging, all in today’s lesson. All things we’ve heard many times before. But because everyone here is in a different place in our lives than when we heard it all before, maybe, just maybe, Jesus has something new to say to us, when we’re ready to hear the truth.
The Rev. Mary Green