(a sermon for February 24, 2019, the 6th Sunday after Epiphany, based on Luke 6:27-38)
I want to begin this morning by sharing with you some words from Luke… but in this instance, not the words of Luke the disciple, Luke the Physician, Luke the author of the biblical Gospel, but rather Luke… Skywalker!
That’s right, I said it (!), and might I just add here as a personal aside that I’ve been waiting over 30 years to get some kind of Star Wars reference into a sermon, so be kind! It’s actually in a scene from the latest Star Wars film, “Episode 8: The Last Jedi,” in which – a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (!) – the peasant girl Rey journeys to the distant world of Act-To in search of Luke Skywalker, Jedi Master, in the hope that she can bring him back to lead the resistance in their battle against the First Order and, perchance, to herself learn the “ways of the Force” and become a Jedi; which is something that the now old, embittered and incredibly grizzled Luke Skywalker most decidedly does not want to do!
But Rey persists, and finally Luke agrees to give the girl a lesson on how to use the force; and starts by asking her, “What do you [even] know about the force?” And with all the enthusiasm of a brand new, over eager greenhorn student, Rey immediately says, “It’s a power that the Jedi have that lets them control people… and make things float.” To which Skywalker simply rolls his eyes and responds, “Impressive… every word in that sentence was wrong.” And then, of course, Luke goes on to explain all that difficult and convoluted stuff about how the force binds the universe together and resisting the dark side of the force; and soon we’re off and running to face Kylo Ren in a light saber battle… (ahem) but I digress! The point is, I loved that scene; it has a way of immediately breaking down our expectations about this mystical thing called “the Force,” and draws us in for something new , something challenging, and perhaps something even a bit unsettling!
Actually – and here’s just a small glimpse of the kind of unique things your pastor thinks about (!) – as I was watching this movie again a few weeks ago, I found myself wondering if there ever was a time for Jesus – surrounded at all sides by these throngs of people, to say nothing of the “learned” scribes and Pharisees who had all these assumptions and so much to say about God and faith and ways of true righteousness – if there was ever a moment that Jesus simply wanted to say to them, “That’s impressive… every word of what you just said was wrong…”
…and then proceeds to teach them something far different and seemingly more unlikely than anything they could have ever expected or even imagined for themselves!
Well, once again this morning, our text from Luke (the disciple and gospel writer this time!) is part of his version of the so-called “sermon on the mount;” in this instance the “sermon on the plain.” And though the language and phraseology differs somewhat from what we find in Matthew’s account, what’s clear in both versions is that Jesus is putting forth something radically different from what any of them, inside and outside of the temple, had grown up thinking or believing about living out of a faith in God. I mean, already – and you’ll remember this from last Sunday – Jesus has said, “Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, sorrowful and despised,” and, let’s not forget, “Woe to you if right now you’re already rich, fat, happy and popular… because guess what, your time of mourning and weeping is coming sooner than you think!”
Jim Somerville, a Baptist pastor and teacher out of Virginia, has written that in many ways, what Jesus was saying must have “sounded [to the crowd] like the start of a revolution,” where the high and mighty would soon be pulled off their thrones in favor of the poor and lowly; and in fact, there were likely a good many in that crowd who were more than ready to do “what they could to hasten things along!” And, to be fair, why wouldn’t they? After all, for generations they’d all heard of prophecies of a Messiah who would rule on the throne of David, and of a kingdom with no end; this was everything they were expecting and more, and as far as they were concerned, it was about time!!
But then Jesus says something to these spiritual revolutionaries they weren’t expecting at all: “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies…”
You heard me, Jesus says: “…love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” As a matter of fact, “if anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat, [you] don’t even withhold [from them] even your shirt.” And Jesus goes on from there, telling them that in every way that counts in their lives that they should “do to others as [they] would have [done] to [them];” to love people, even those people they don’t like, as they themselves would like to be loved, to do good, to give to everyone who begs them, and to lend, “expecting nothing in return.” Oh, and by the way? Don’t judge if you don’t want to be judged; don’t condemn unless you’re ready to be condemned; and start cultivating a spirit of forgiveness, because you’re going to need it!
So much for the revolution! You have to wonder how those people were hearing Jesus’ words; not only was just about everything they’d understood to be true about the coming Messiah and what that meant for God’s people Israel turning out, according to Jesus, to be completely wrong (!), the possibility of this soon to be fulfilled Kingdom of God with all of its new expectations was sounding… well, difficult, if not downright impossible! Love your enemies? Bless those who curse you? Turn the other cheek? Really, Jesus… really?
It’s a question that I suspect that most of us have asked at one time or another. The truth is that these words of Jesus are among the most familiar to our ears and central to what we know and understand about our Christian faith. I mean, who among us has not quoted from the “Golden Rule,” to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you?” It’s Sunday School 101, the kind of basic wisdom that we’ve known of since the days we were in kindergarten! So we know what Jesus is saying, but… to actually live out of that notion? To not merely tolerate and grudgingly co-exist with our enemies but to truly love them? To be so generous that we’ll give to everything to anyone who begs, and to lend our resources with no thought of getting anything in return? To actually turn the other cheek even in the wake of being injured yourself? We do know the words, friends; and we may well hear Jesus’ teaching resonating in our ears; but it’s not at all an easy thing to do. We could even go so far as to say that in this world and in these violent and difficult days some of what Jesus is asking of us here not only seems unrealistic but also at times, dangerous!
So what do we do with this? How shall we answer Jesus? How are we to make these impossible possibilities real in our lives and thus live this identity as “children of the Most High?”
Well, perhaps it begins in knowing that what we’re talking about here is love of another kind. It turns out that there are six words in scripture that are translated in English as the word “love,” from romantic love (eros) to friendship (phileo), but the one that’s used in this passage is, in the Greek, agape, which speaks of self-sacrificial love; in other words, according to David Ewart, the “whole-hearted, unreserved, unconditional desire for the well-being of the other,” where “nothing is held back, there is no hesitation, no calculation of costs and benefits, no expectation of anything in return… only total desiring of the well-being of the other for their own good.” And… that’s whether you happen to like them or not!
In other words, it’s more than simply being “nice” to the people who have done us wrong; and it’s most certainly not taking on the characteristics of a doormat and letting ourselves be walked all over again and again (and while we’re on the subject, the idea of “turning the other cheek” was never meant – by Jesus or anyone else – to suggest we should submit to any kind of physical abuse, most especially by those in power, which was the imagery that Jesus was setting forth in that verse). But it is to suggest that however we’re treated in this world, we have the opportunity to react differently. David Lose puts this beautifully: he says that Jesus’ words are a promise to us that “it doesn’t have to be that way,” that we don’t have to answer the hurt and pain of this world by responding in the same way. That violence doesn’t have to begat more violence; that divisive rhetoric does not require a “tit for tat” response; that we don’t need to create an episode of intolerance and injustice and to show that intolerance and injustice are wrong! “There is another option,” says Lose. “…we can treat others the way we want to be treated… there is enough, more than enough – love, attention, food, worth, honor, time – to go around” and that transcends the death and loss that is part and parcel of this world. Perhaps we can be the reminder that “this world isn’t the only one, maybe not even the most real one.”
So we agape love our enemies; we show forth agape to those who hate and abuse us; we demonstrate agape in all of its whole-hearted glory to those in the greatest need, and we do it without any other expectation than to do even more! To quote the philosophy of a recently departed saint of this congregation, “the question is not, ‘what can I do?’ The question is, ‘What else can I do?’”
Is this a “normal” way of doing things in this life, this business of having love for those who haven’t loved you, or even hated you? No, I’m afraid not. Is it an easy thing for any of us ever to do at all? Usually, no. And is it true that that which we’re not ever supposed to expect in return we’re not actually going to get? Yes, more often than not, that happens to be true. But friends, on those occasions we take the risk to live this “impossible possibility” of true love not only does the world change, but we change along with it; real transformation happens and the Kingdom of God starts to take root within us! And the best part of all is that though this is difficult for us to make happen, we do have a model for forgiveness, for mercy and for that full measure of true and redeeming love: Jesus Christ our Lord, who even now is offering you and me that life changing transformation.
So let me ask you this, beloved? Who is the enemy in your life who needs the kind of whole-hearted, unconditional, transformative love that only you can provide? Where’s the good that needs to be done and can only be done by you? Who is it that needs praying for that you have a hard time even looking in the eye? Who’s been begging you for that which you’re able but up till now unwilling to give?
Is there mercy you can show but haven’t? Have you held back on forgiveness even when you know better? And while we’re on the subject, how’s your sense of judgment these days… particularly as it applies to other people?
At the end of this day, beloved, have you given a good measure of yourself… of your life… of your love?
You see, it’s not impossible; in fact, it can be the life we’re meant to live by the grace of God and in Jesus’ name. I pray it might be so for each of us.
Thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry