But I say to you that listen,
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also;
and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.
Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods,
do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.“
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?
For even sinners love those who love them.
If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?
For even sinners do the same.
If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.
But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.
Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High;
for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged;
do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.
Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.
A good measure, pressed down, shaken together,
running over, will be put into your lap;
for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.
The late Maya Angelou used to tell the following story about her Aunt Tee:
“Aunt Tee was a Los Angeles member of our extended family. She was seventy-nine when I met her, sinewy, strong, and the color of old lemons….[Aunt Tee] had retired and lived alone in a dead neat ground-floor apartment. I used to visit her often and perch on her uncomfortable sofa just to hear her stories.
She was proud that after working thirty years as a maid, she spent the next thirty years as a live-in housekeeper, carrying the keys to rich houses and keeping meticulous accounts….Aunt Tee told me that once she was house-keeping for a couple in Bel Air… [living] with them in a fourteen-room ranch house. There was a day maid who cleaned, and a gardener who daily tended the…gardens. Aunt Tee oversaw the workers.
When she had begun the job, she had cooked and served a light breakfast, a good lunch, and a full three- or four-course dinner to her employers and their guests. Aunt Tee said she watched them grow older and leaner. After a few years they stopped entertaining and ate dinner hardly seeing each other at the table, [rarely eating more than eggs and toast.]
[But Aunt Tee had her own spacious apartment in the house, and time to herself on Saturdays.] On Saturdays she would cook a pot of pig’s feet, a pot of greens, fry chicken, make potato salad, and bake a banana pudding. Then, that evening, [the chauffeur with whom she was keeping company, and another couple of friends]…would come to…eat and drink, play records and dance. As the evening wore on, they would settle down to a serious game of bid whist.
Aunt Tee said that what occurred during every Saturday party startled her and her friends the first time it happened. They had been playing cards, and Aunt Tee, who had just won the bid, held a handful of trumps. She felt a cool breeze on her back and sat upright and turned around. Her employers had cracked her door open and beckoned to her. Aunt Tee, a little peeved, laid down her cards and went to the door.
The couple backed away and asked her to come into the hall, and there they both spoke and won Aunt Tee’s sympathy forever. ‘Theresa, we don’t mean to disturb you…’ the man whispered, ‘but you all seem to be having such a good time…’ The woman added, ‘We hear you and your friends laughing every Saturday night, and we’d just like to watch you. We don’t want to bother you. We’ll be quiet and just watch.’ The man said, ‘If you’ll just leave your door ajar, your friends don’t need to know. We’ll never make a sound.’”
A friend named Jim McCoy shared the outlines of that story in a blog post a couple of weeks ago, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since. It’s changing the way I hear Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. What if Jesus isn’t sharing a list of rules for us to follow here—what if he’s cracking the door open to let us see a way of living so full of joy and meaning that everything else pales by comparison? What if he’s inviting us to step into the light that spills from that room and start acting like people who’ve been invited to the party?
Guests at this gathering take their cues from the host. Jesus says “Be merciful, as your Father in Heaven is merciful.” At this party you are asked to give up measuring and competing and being afraid. Here, force is not met by force; violence is not met by violence, because at this party no one gets treated like an enemy. Forgiveness interrupts that endless cycle. Behavior is determined not by what the other person has done to us, but by what God has done for us
But this is one of those parties that as soon as you show up, you get asked to help. The mercy that brought you through the door needs to be extended to others who haven’t yet found their way. When Jesus says we’re not to judge, I think that’s another way of saying that we’re not to give up on anyone, as though they weren’t invited, too. So you start passing glasses, and realize as you do, that your own thirst is getting quenched. You can be sure that the party is real when it begins to change you.
One of the places that has cracked open that door for me is an odd little church in Asheville known as the Haywood Street Congregation. I’ve mentioned it before. It’s a worshiping community, and a place that you can come to get a haircut and a lovely meal, some fresh clothes—and also clean needles, if you need them. There’s a respite center for homeless neighbors just released from the hospital. Haywood’s pastor, Brian Combs, says he wants it to be the church for the people who’ve been kicked out everywhere else. My friend Jim describes it as “a rare mix of the housed and the homeless, the prominent and the ignored.” Everyone describes Haywood’s worship as Holy Chaos. Executives come on lunch breaks from busy downtown offices, and sit next to neighbors who have most of their possessions in the backpack at their feet. It’s not unusual for a visitor to say that it looks more like the kingdom of God than any other place they’ve seen.
When I’m in town I volunteer in small ways but there’s a sense in which I’m still hanging around the door trying to decide whether I’m going to really give myself to that party. As you can imagine, it’s not always a comfortable place to be.
But while I’ve been away in Chapel Hill, something new has been fomenting on the campus—something that will begin to emerge in March. A team of young, internationally trained fresco artists has undertaken a year-long project to produce a 28 foot-long fresco on the central wall of the sanctuary. The fresco will bring the Beatitudes to life, incorporating the faces and forms of more than thirty members of that community, some now in housing, some still on the street.
Brian says that to be homeless is to be invisible. To struggle with poverty, mental illness, and addiction is to be told that your story is not worth hearing. The idea of the fresco emerged as a way of insisting that every story matters.
You may know that to produce a fresco, pigment is added to the surface of wet plaster before it dries. You have about a day. When it works, the color is absorbed into the plaster, producing surprising depth, giving the sense that the figures are lit from within. The paint is bound into the wall—it becomes the wall.
A man named Charlie Burns was the first to be sketched for the project. Charlie helped to get Haywood’s welcome table started almost 10 years ago. He used to own a roofing company and roofed houses for more than 40 years, but he struggled with addiction. He’s lived in his car, and under a bridge, he said he even lived in a dumpster once. Charlie’s now dying of cancer. When he was interviewed last year, he said, “But as long as that wall stands, I’m going to be at every service. And there’s no place on earth I’d rather have my picture hanging than Haywood Street.”
The thing about the party God is throwing at Haywood Street— the thing about the parties God throws everywhere—is that you’ll never have the full experience if you insist on being an observer who maintains a respectable distance. The measure of vulnerability each person offers is the measure of blessing they will receive.
Offering a new metaphor, Jesus says it’s like going to the “market for grain. The merchant fills the measuring container to the brim and shakes it down so that every cranny is filled, and then pours the overflowing grain into the apron of the buyer to carry home.” We are those vessels, friends.
Consider this your invitation to come, to be filled—to dance.
 Ronald Allen, Commentary on Luke 6:27-38