February 24, 2019

7th Sunday after the Epiphany

Genesis 45: 3-11, 15 
Psalm 37
1 Corinthians 15: 35-38, 42-50
Luke 6: 27-38

“How do you really love those who really hurt us?”

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The words of scripture that were our Gospel reading this morning, and the instructions from Jesus that they contain are – and have been – for many, many people, the most challenging and difficult message they have ever heard. I must admit that this morning is a first for me: in more that 30 years of preaching and pastoral ministry I have never preached on this passage from Luke’s account of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain – nor the parallel passage in Matthew chapter 5 that is Mathew’s record of the Sermon on the Mount. 

There are a couple of reasons for that, one I don’t mind mentioning, and the other I’m rather embarrassed to admit.  The first is that each of these two passages only appears once in the three-year lectionary cycle. Moreover, they both show up – in different years of that cycle – on the seventh Sunday of Epiphany.  That’s very late in the cycle of readings available for Epiphany; depending on when Easter falls, Epiphany can span as few as four Sundays, and as many as nine.  The point is, these two readings don’t appear very often. 

That coincidence has been something of a relief for the second reason I’ve never preached on it before: the fact is the prospect of preaching on this passage feels like I will be walking on eggshells – or perhaps tiptoeing through a minefield – when I do. Every congregation has people who are fragile at various points in their lives, and my concern is that this passage may come to some like a vicious stomp. Jesus’ words present what for some may be an impossible conundrum, a dark passage holding little evidence or even promise of light to shine on a painful dilemma.

The problem line of course, is when Jesus says, “Love your enemies,” and then he goes on to explain what that means by saying, “do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you.” And if that wasn’t problem enough, he goes on to talk about turning the other cheek when you do get hit.

They are words that are hard, whoever you are. By definition, “loving your enemies” is difficult. But for some, “difficult” doesn’t begin to describe it; for some it poses a monumental, even monstrous challenge.

For some people these words are like a kick in the teeth, either because of the names and faces that word “enemies” brings to mind when they hear that term, or because of the context in which these words have been quoted to them. There are people who hear these words as “Love your rapist,” or “Do good to those who physically abused you when you were a child;” “bless those who selfishly, savagely messed up your life so badly that the nightmares robbed you of sleep for years, or continue to haunt you, and made every relationship you have ever had a painful struggle.”

There are women and children who have fled from their homes to escape the drunken rampages of a perpetually violent man, only to have been told by their churches, “for the love of God, turn the other cheek and go back and love him.” And some of those women and children are now dead because of that callous and gutless misuse of this passage.

These words of Jesus are not addressed to individuals who have been the victims of cruel abuse. These words are addressed to those who have power, those who have the power to take effective action for good or harm against a person who has wronged them. The reason I say this, the reason I am convinced that it’s true, is that the words are meaningless if directed to those who do not have any power in a given situation. 

Put yourself back in time for a minute to when you were six years old. You are a small child in a big school and you have inadvertently and suddenly got yourself caught in the wrong end of the playground, and you are now surrounded by a gang of twelve year old bullies. There are several of them, a half dozen or maybe more, and they are all twice your size. They are standing in a circle around you taking it in turns to push you roughly from one to the next, one by one tossing you to the ground, yanking your pants down around your ankles, hitting you repeatedly, trapping you in their circle with no way out.  You are terrified and crying but still they go on. What can you do? What are your choices?

What would it mean if someone were to tell you to turn the other cheek? It wouldn’t mean a thing, because there isn’t anything else you can do. Turning the other cheek is only a meaningful instruction if you can choose it as an alternative to beating the stuffing out of someone whose intent is dishing up a beating on you. It’s no use trying to teach someone to turn the other cheek until they have learned to fight.

Jesus was directing his words to those who could strike back, those who have the capacity and the capability to retaliate and destroy those who had cursed them. To those people he is saying, “The next time you are about to exercise your right of retaliation, the next time you are ready to rise up to destroy someone who has offended you, stop . . . . Stop and think, stop and consider letting it be as water off a duck’s back.” You see, there is a huge difference between those for whom the ‘water-off-a duck’s-back-approach’ is a basic survival skill in a threatening and abusive world, and those for whom it is a choice to be made from a position of personal power. Jesus is addressing his words to the latter.

Remember, Jesus is not speaking to the powerless here.  Jesus is not speaking to those who have no choice other than to curl up in a ball, take the punishing hits and pray that they might survive and live another day.  Moreover, I am also fairly convinced that he is not speaking primarily to individuals, especially when the hurt the enemy has inflicted has caused lasting damage.

Jesus was speaking to a group, to the community of God’s people. As a group we are required to love enemies and turn the other cheek. Which means that if you think that someone in the community is in a situation where the other cheek needs to be turned, then maybe it’s your turn to go in and take the hit. Maybe the other cheek is yours this time.

Some of these directives that Jesus gives in this sermon are basically impossible if you read them as injunctions intended for individuals. If you personally turn the other cheek every time and give your shirt to everyone who asks for your coat you will be battered and naked and cold in no time at all. But if a community handles the situation together, it may actually be possible to live this stuff out, to live through it and beyond it, and perhaps even influence a change, a positive change, a change for the good.

That way, if the instruction to ‘love your enemies’ does mean ‘do good to those who abused you when were an unsuspecting little guy, or an innocent young girl,’ it isn’t up to you to do it, it’s up to the rest of us. Perhaps to visit them in jail to try to show them that the love of God in Christ can reach even the most vile monsters like them. But let’s not go asking it of that innocent young girl or that blameless little boy. God is not that cruel. It would only be if the healing of the wounds was sufficiently complete that someone could face the enemy without feeling powerless, only then that God would ever suggest that that person might be involved in the actions of showing love to such an enemy. 

Loving those who do evil to us is a community responsibility and is one of the great expressions of the freedom we have in Christ. When we have the freedom, the ability, and the opportunity to do otherwise, we are free to love in the face of hate, we are free to turn cursing into blessing. It is not a rule for the innocent victims who have no choice but to submit to the abuse. That would not be an expression of freedom at all; it would be proof that the rest of us didn’t have the willingness or the guts, the love or the sense of responsibility to get them out of there.

I don’t want to leave this passage without having said anything positive about it. The real point of this passage is that God’s love for us is overwhelmingly generous, and all we are expected to do is respond in kind.

God treats us far better than we deserve. It would be very easy to stand up here and make a big bad list of all the ways in which we have insulted God, damaged God’s creation, and contributed to the pain and hostility in God’s world. Everyone of us has caused more than our fair share of hurt and misery, to ourselves and to others, and consequently we have caused hurt and grief to God. But God’s response to us continues to be extravagantly generous and loving and forgiving. God continues to turn the other cheek, to give more than we ask for, and to reach out to us in love no matter how unfaithful we have been. And if you find that hard to believe, just look at the life of Jesus. He didn’t owe you anything, but he accepted being tortured to death rather than compromise his message of God’s overflowing love for you.

So essentially what Jesus is saying here is that he wants you, he wants me, he wants us, to learn from God’s example, and to treat others the way God treats us. Just as God has the power to strike you down, to wipe you out, but chooses to love you instead, so too you have the power to withhold love and hope from others, but God says “Love. Love them anyway.”

And ultimately it is these words that really sort out the sheep from the goats. It is this challenge, these instructions, that distinguish those whose response to God is genuine and faithful from those whose are falsehearted and faithless.  If you really want to test the faith of a church, walk in and name their enemies and see what happens. Walk in to a militantly fundamentalist church and talk about loving the abortionists or members of the LGBTQ community and see what happens. Walk into a left-leaning radical socially active church and talk about loving Rush Limbaugh or Amy Coulter and see what happens. 

A few years ago, Pat Robertson, the American TV evangelist and a leader of the ‘Moral Majority,’ called for Christians to pray for the death of their enemies. At the risk of seeming to be judgmental, I’d venture to say that doesn’t sound like something a Bible-believing follower of Jesus Christ would countenance; if so, the basis for such a recommendation is grounded in a very selective reading of the Scriptures, one that has overlooked or ignored the words of Jesus we read this morning in Luke’s Gospel account.  Robertson’s call to action betrays him as someone unwilling to respond to the overflowing love of God, by loving those who opposed him, and calls into question his very willingness to follow the one who went to the cross rather than strike back.

Jesus’ injunction to love our enemies is a call to mirror our living and loving after his own example, his life which modeled what it means to love as he loves us – unconditionally and unreservedly; to commit ourselves to follow in the ways of Jesus; to love above and beyond the call of duty.

We come then as a people who have known pain, who have been hurt, but who have begun to discover the cleansing healing love of God, and who are responding to Jesus’s summons by learning to love as we are loved. We come celebrating the fact that for us the tide has turned, that the pain and hurts that have been inflicted upon us are being washed away and the love of Christ flowing into us in its place.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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