Don’t Hit: The Death Penalty, Throwing Stones, and Love

This sermon was originally preached via podcast and Facebook Live at Mission Hills United Methodist Church in San Diego, California on July 19, 2020. To listen to the full recording, visit our podcast, “Mission Hills United Methodist Church” or search ‘Mission Hills United Methodist Church’ wherever you get your podcasts. If you would like to donate to the ministries of Mission Hills UMC, you can make a secure online gift here. 

Matthew 5:21-24

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.“

I want to begin by asking you, when was the last time you were shown grace or love? You can give a specific example, or the last day you felt grace or love being shown to you. What did it look like?

When was the last time you were shown grace or love?

If I were to ask a follow up question, I’d ask how that felt. And I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most of your responses would say that it was overall a positive experience. We need grace and love to remind us that we can be human and loved at the same time.

So we’re making a bit of a shift as we move into our message today, but they’re very much related. Because of current events that align really closely with our scripture today, I want to share this statement with you, and I want to invite you to hold this idea of grace, of loving kindness that we don’t need to earn, hold that with you.

The United Methodist Church’s social principles states this in regards to the death penalty: 

“We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore, and transform all human beings. The United Methodist Church is deeply concerned about crime throughout the world and the value of any life taken by a murder or homicide. We believe all human life is sacred and created by God and therefore, we must see all human life as significant and valuable. When governments implement the death penalty (capital punishment), then the life of the convicted person is devalued and all possibility of change in that person’s life ends. We believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and that the possibility of reconciliation with Christ comes through repentance. This gift of reconciliation is offered to all individuals without exception and gives all life new dignity and sacredness. For this reason, we oppose the death penalty (capital punishment) and urge its elimination from all criminal codes.”

Now, I want to read this again, and as I do, in the comments, type in words you hear that describe God or God’s creation.

“We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore, and transform all human beings. The United Methodist Church is deeply concerned about crime throughout the world and the value of any life taken by a murder or homicide. We believe all human life is sacred and created by God and therefore, we must see all human life as significant and valuable. When governments implement the death penalty (capital punishment), then the life of the convicted person is devalued and all possibility of change in that person’s life ends. We believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and that the possibility of reconciliation with Christ comes through repentance. This gift of reconciliation is offered to all individuals without exception and gives all life new dignity and sacredness. For this reason, we oppose the death penalty (capital punishment) and urge its elimination from all criminal codes.”

This past week, The United States returned from a 17 year break from federal executions, as three people were executed by the Justice Department. Our country decided that this act of violence, regardless of what warranted it or not, was more important than the human life which was executed. 

Now, those who were executed had been convicted of ending the lives of others, so we might think, an eye for an eye, right? But here’s the thing. Jesus never says that. In fact, Jesus goes so far as to say that if someone hits one side of your face, turn the other cheek to have them hit the other side, too. In that same passage, he teaches us to love even our enemies.

So these human lives that were ended by the government this week, they fell to the hands of a system that believes in ‘eye for an eye’ and loses sight of the ‘love even your enemies’ message Jesus taught. Jesus, the one who died by a federal execution himself, this same Jesus teaches that no matter who they are, no matter what they’ve done, and no matter how hard it is for us, our job is still consistent: to love. 

Who is hard for you to love? 

Today, we read an insert from the famous Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus meets people in love, where they are, and he teaches them without judgment or condemnation. He meets people with love, and both instructs them on how God is teaching them to act, and also meets them in relationship, widening their understanding of who and how they are to love.

Now, Jesus isn’t sharing this famous sermon the way he does unintentionally. He is strategic, in that how he teaches, it completely mirrors what he’s teaching. Concerning anger, Jesus shares this message, our scripture today.

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment;“

So we as the UMC do not condemn the death penalty because we don’t believe in justice. And today’s scripture even states that, that those who murder or those who even hit will be liable to judgment. But Jesus’ point here, is to say that justice is not reciprocated the best simply by saying, ‘here’s what you did, so we’re doing the same thing back’. And in fact, Jesus makes no mention of how we as human beings are to control that process of judgment, likely because it’s not something we have any responsibility controlling. This is God’s work, to decide how to order the relationships that are severed over murder or sin. 

So we can’t kill people, and we can’t hurt people even, right? This is a commandment, one of the ten, one that feels kind of obvious maybe to us. 

Here’s where it gets tricky. Jesus doesn’t just stop there. He doesn’t just stop with ‘do not murder’, but he takes it further. Jesus says that even if you are angry with a sibling, that too is a way of harming another person. 

As we saw in our children’s message today, St. Francis was in a community of people who had seen this wolf, a wolf they thought was dangerous and ferocious, and they hated this wolf, thinking he was a monster who needed to be killed. St. Francis though, decided that it wasn’t his job to judge this wolf, especially since this wolf had never done anything to hurt him. So instead of reacting with fear, Francis makes the sign of a cross to the wolf, offering a blessing to him, grace. And the wolf accepted that blessing, by laying at Francis’ feet, and making a promise to him to love those in his community, just as Francis had loved him. 

So this story isn’t about murder at all really, we learn. Perhaps, our scripture isn’t either. Perhaps, our scripture tells us a story about a second option, an option that calls us into deeper relationship with those in our community, even those who may be treated like a monster, or a wolf. When we take seriously the teachings Jesus shared, it forces us to take a look at our own treatment of people who we may deem as ‘the worst’. If, in the eyes of Jesus, those who murder and those who are angry at people fall into the same category, then we no longer get to judge others, simply because we never have killed anyone. 

This is the difficult flipside about God’s love. God loves everyone, and has created everyone in God’s image. And what that means, is that even the most annoying person you know, even the person who you refuse to be in the same room with, you are not any better than them. It’s a sobering teaching, one that requires us to change our patterns of thinking, so that we acknowledge that God is the one who is making judgments, and not us. Our job is to love, regardless, because at the end of the day, we are all given love through a grace that we never had to earn. Each of us are blessed with this gift, not because of who we are, but because of whose we are.

When we experience love, and especially when we experience love that we don’t think we deserve, we see Jesus’ vision which he preached about in the Sermon on the Mount. Do not murder, he says. Jesus reminds us of this commandment from the Hebrew Bible. But Jesus also reminds us that everyone deserves to be treated with love, because each of us, even those we fear, even those who are condemned or hated by society, each of us are created by God.

I’m reminded of the verse that says ‘he who is without sin can throw the first stone’. And I think it really goes alongside our passage today. Part of our humanness is the reality that we won’t always say the right thing. We won’t always show up as our best self. We won’t always be the perfect partner, family member, or friend. We will likely hurt someone in our lifetime, on purpose or not. And yes, we have to own that, in order to grow and maybe not do it the next time. And we are also reminded that in community, our judgment on others is not invited to the table. God invites us still, to show up, find a place to sit, and to encounter love, over and over again, period. 

So may we free ourselves from our own expectations to cast judgment on those in our community. May we find loving ways to hold ourselves and others accountable to love, knowing that we too are not perfect. And may we remember that all human life is sacred, significant, and valuable.

The third person who was executed last week had a lot of qualities that I would have listed earlier, in who it’s hard for me to love. And still, I am called, and each of us are called to see the sacredness of each human life. The final thing this man said was actually a prayer. Seconds before his human life was ended by federal execution, he recited a poem by a Jesuit Priest, and prayed: “Hail Mary, Mother of God, pray for me.”

Following his execution, his attorney released this statement: 

“Dustin Honken was redeemed. He recognized and repented for the crimes he had committed, and spent his time in prison atoning for them. With Father Mark, Sister Betty, Cardinal Tobin and other religious mentors, Dustin worked every day at the Catholic faith that was at the center of his life. During his time in prison, he cared for everyone he came into contact with: guards, counselors, medical staff, his fellow inmates and his legal team. Over the years he grew incredibly close to his family, becoming a true father, son, brother and friend. There was no reason for the government to kill him, in haste or at all. In any case, they failed. The Dustin Honken they wanted to kill is long gone. The man they killed today was a human being, who could have spent the rest of his days helping others and further redeeming himself. May he rest in peace.”

Friends, may we leave this place today believing that human life is precious, and that nobody, not even the ones we find hardest to love, are too much for us to strive to love.  Amen.

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