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Category Archives: Spiritual Truths

The Conviction of Things Unseen

(a sermon for August 18, 2019, the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16)

(Note:  An audio version of this message can be heard here)

It was a small moment, but I dare say that it was one of the more enlightening moments of my summer vacation.

We’d gone up to Mapleton that day visiting both the in-laws and our son and his wife who live nearby.  Zach and Jess’ house is literally out behind where my mother and father-in-law live, and within walking distance, so I’m on my way up there when this old, dilapidated and nearly rusted-out pickup truck drives up beside me, and this old, dilapidated and nearly rusted-out man leans out of the truck window, laughs out loud and says to me (and, by the way, it being church and all, I’m cleaning this up just a little bit), “It really stinks to get old, doesn’t it?”

Now, I don’t know this guy from Adam (!) but he seemed friendly enough, so I just laughed and said, “Oh yeah, it happens to every one of us sooner or later!”  To which he replied, “Well, good for you to be out here walking… you want to stave it off for as long as you possibly can!”  I’m still just laughing, and with my Maine accent kicking in I say, “Ayuh, I figured I’d best be kickin’ that can solidly down the road!” And then the man says this: “Well, you know what, nobody should be out here walking alone… tomorrow I’m coming out to look for you so we can walk together!”  And with that, he just smiles, gives me the official “Aroostook County Wave” and roars off down the road. And as I’m watching him go I’m still laughing, but I’m thinking, how old does this guy think I am?

I mean, granted, I wasn’t exactly at my Sunday best that morning… I’m on vacation, after all, so I’m in shorts and a t-shirt; my hair’s getting shaggy and I’m sure I was sporting some beard stubble, but come on!  I know I’m 60 years old, but did I really look that… that… dilapidated?  Maybe it was the way I was walking down the road; perhaps there was a bit more maturity in my step than I intended (after all, as has been pointed out to me, I may have two new hips, but the rest of my body is still 60)!  All I can say is that apparently I was not only headed to Zach’s house, but also quite literally to the end of the road… my road!   And so when I got back I could let everybody in the family know that it was now official, because the truth of the matter had been unquestionably confirmed for me while on the journey out there on the “old town road,”  so to speak:

I’m old.

Now, don’t misunderstand me here; I’m not headed for a rocking chair just yet!  But I do have to say that for me this chance encounter “on the way” did end up serving as something of a parable, and an apt metaphor for life itself:  simply put, that we’re all on this “walk of life,” aren’t we; taking the journey step by step, mile by mile, year by year, ever and always moving toward some kind of long-term vision for the future; raising a family, having grandchildren, getting ready for retirement, trying to live your life with some kind of integrity so that when you finally do leave this world behind, it’ll be a better place than when you found it.  That’s what we do, right; that’s what our journey, and the walking, is all about!

And yet, we also know how utterly unpredictable life can be, and how quickly things can change in ways that are often wonderful but sometimes… challenging (What’s that expression; I think it’s attributed to Woody Allen, of all people: “If you want to make God laugh,” he once wrote, “just tell him about your plans!”).  So often the hard reality of life is that plans change: there’s a bad medical diagnosis, the loss of a job, a shift in a relationship status — hey, maybe you discover that you’re not as young as you used to be (!) — but at the end of the day some of the things we envision get postponed, others change as we along and a few, well, don’t happen at all.  And as far as leaving the world a better place?  Well, when we look around as we do these days to see that world that keeps spinning recklessly out of control, we can’t help but wonder if that’s even possible.

And yet… and yet, we keep walking, don’t we?  We stay on the journey, we kick that can down the road, we keep on “keeping on,” continuing to go where we are determined to go and to do what we know is right, ever and always staying true to the path that’s been set before us even if at times we’re not all that sure where that pathway’s going to end up!  We walk in faith… because, as our text for this morning has so beautifully proclaimed, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Understand, friends, that this has nothing to do with wishful thinking, which is the expectation that by some miracle that which has never happened before in our lives will come to pass; nor is it even about optimism, per se, as optimism has to do with the strength and resilience of the human spirit and the confident belief that good will triumph, eventually and finally, no matter what.  And there’s certainly a place for that; but faith is different.  Faith, you see, is all about hope: a hope that is founded in God and which is made real and vindicated because of God’s faithfulness!  Lest you think I’m just talking in circles here, let me put it another way: in the words of Craig Barnes, “Faith isn’t something we get.  It’s something that gets us.  We don’t possess it.  We are possessed by it… faith is a grace from God – a grace that changes everything about your vision of life in this world.”  So faith, then, is the assurance of things hoped for, precisely because that assurance comes from God; it’s not simply our confidence in the triumph of good, it’s our understanding that this is how good triumphs, solely by God’s faithfulness unto us!  It’s how you and I keep walking the path set before us even when we’re not at all sure of what’s ahead; for faith, beloved, is “the conviction of things unseen.”

This 11th chapter of Hebrews, of which we read just a small portion this morning, is considered one of the greatest affirmations of faith that’s found in all of Holy Scripture, and moreover a celebration of the heroes of faith who had gone on before, from Abel to Noah to Abraham to Moses and beyond, all these people who spent their lives believing in this great hope that had its source in an ever faithful God.  But what’s interesting is that if you read just prior to where we picked up the reading this morning, in the 10th chapter, you read how Paul is urging the people to not “abandon that confidence” in their own Christian faith, saying to them, “you need endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.”  Understand, we’re not talking about a group of people who have turned away from God, but those who have kept on, and who likely have a long way yet to go on the journey.  So, says Paul, you need to know what faith truly is; hence this grand affirmation of faith in the chapter that follows.  Actually, there are two Greek words that are used in that regard:  first, there’s upostasis, which translates as “standing under,” and speaks to “a foundation of belief,” that comes from Jesus himself; in other words, Jesus is the very picture of the “bedrock of God’s identity,” “something basic, something solid, something firm” that “provides a place from which one can hope.” (Amy L.B. Peeler, NT Professor, Wheaton College) It is, as we read, the “assurance of things hoped for.”

The other word used is elegchos, the translation of which is a bit murkier, but is probably best referred to in English as “evidence” or even “proof” of what we have difficult comprehending; that is, in the words of The Message, “our handle on that which we can’t see.”  In other words, even if on this point on your journey you’re having some doubts (I don’t know, maybe some random passer-by has suggested you’re too old to keep walking!), don’t forget there are those who have gone before who continued to stand firmly upon God’s faithfulness, and you would not want to reject that evidence!  Case in point: Abraham, who demonstrated his faith by going to the place where God called him to go, sight unseen, and who continued to be faithful, though “this great obedience never really paid off” during his lifetime, living out his days “as in a foreign land, living in tents.”(Peeler)  And yet, over time and across generations that promise would come to fruition, and Abraham “looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” Likewise, the promise of descendants as many as the stars up in the heavens did not happen in exactly the way that neither Abraham most especially (!) Sarah were expecting; nonetheless, even though they were elderly and “as good as dead”Paul’s words, not mine, friends (!) – there was a child, the beginning of a great multitude of descendants.

The point is, it was by faith that Abraham and Sarah kept walking; they kept looking and moving forward, firm in the knowledge that God’s faithfulness and his sure and certain promise of a land and a home and a family.  They truly had a “conviction of things unseen,” and the question for you and me is whether we’re willing in our lives – and, might I add, in our care of the world and culture that surrounds us – to keep walking in faith despite all the disruptions that seek to keep us off track; looking forward to all signs of God’s faithfulness and love as we go.  “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” and just as it has been for countless generations of the faithful, what that means for us is that no matter how “round about” the journey has seemed to become for us, “we can depend on God to see us home… [because] the destination of the journey of faith is never in doubt.” (Mark Ramsey, “Today”)  We just have to keep walking.

I have shared with you before that one of my great heroes of the faith is the Rev. Dr. Fred McFeely Rogers, a Presbyterian minister better known, of course, to generations of children and families as “Mister Rogers” from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.  I could tell you about a hundred different things I loved about the man, but here’s the latest, something I just learned this week: did you know that whenever Fred Rogers made a speech to one group or another, or when he was on television apart from the “neighborhood,” and even when he was amongst Hollywood celebrities and accepting an Emmy Award for his work in children’s television, “never failed to end his remarks, not with ‘thank you very much,’ or ‘have a good evening,’ but always by saying, ‘May God be with you.’”  And not, by the way, ‘God bless you,’ because “he knew that God had already blessed them, couldn’t help but bless them, would always seek to bless them.”  No… it was always “May God be with you,” because Mister Rogers’ fervent wish, and indeed, his prayer was that each one of those hearing his words would be aware that God was with them in their lives and along their journey.

As the old song goes, “the road is long with many a winding turn.” So it is with faith, beloved… to walk in the presence of the Lord, never looking back but always moving forward, can often be a daunting task indeed.  You know, one thing that old guy in the pickup truck had right was that nobody ought to be walking alone, and there should be someone to walk along with us when we go.  But the good news is that in faith, we’re never alone on the journey. To quote another Presbyterian Church leader, the Rev. Mark Ramsey from Atlanta, “[Faith] knows the challenges of life and the strife of the world.  But God renews faith daily.  Faith gives us a home.  It gives us a road to journey toward that home.”  And as we keep walking on the journey, “God’s hope is persistent and lasting.  It goes eye to eye with hardship and keeps on hoping.”

My prayer for each one of today is that we’ll have that assurance of all the things we hope for, the conviction of what we can’t see… and that awareness of God’s presence with you along every step of the way.

May God be with you, beloved…. May God be with you!

Amen and AMEN!

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Welcomed Home

(a sermon for March 31, 2019, the 4th Sunday in Lent, based on Luke 15:1-32)

Tell me the truth now; when you heard this morning’s scripture reading, didn’t you think to yourselves, Oh, I know this story; I know where this is headed!

Actually, I’d be really surprised if you didn’t have that thought; after all, not only is it safe to say that this story of “The Prodigal Son” is among the most beloved of Jesus’ parables, quite honestly it’s probably logged more pulpit time than nearly anything else in the gospels!

I know I’ve preached on this passage several times over the years and no doubt you’ve heard it more times than that; and from every possible perspective, from that of the rebellious younger son who runs off and squanders his father’s money only to end up feeding pigs in a far off land, to the elder “good” son who stayed home to run the family farm; and of course, from the point of view of the waiting father who welcomes his once-presumed-dead prodigal son home with great rejoicing!

It is a wonderful parable about sin and redemption, grace and joy and our very human tendency to stubbornly refuse those things!  Which is wonderful; the trouble is, however, this is one of those biblical stories so familiar to our ears that it’s pretty much become like one of Aesop’s Fables, in which we can skip right ahead to the moral; which in the case of this story would be, “No matter how badly you have messed up in your life, pick yourself up, wipe the pig slop off your clothes (!) and go home; because there’s love and forgiveness waiting for you there, and once you’ve been welcomed home you can start over where you left off…

…oh, and if you happen to be the older son in this parable… stop your pouting, and go to the party already!”

That would be the moral of the story as we’ve always known it.  Not that this is wrong, mind you; it’s just not wholly what Jesus was getting at when he told the story!  You see, one of the problems with the over-familiarity we have with stories like this one is that they’ve lost, shall we say, their “shock and awe” value! When Jesus told this parable, he intended it to be surprising, shocking, even in a way offensive to the ears hearing it; not as the warm and fuzzy bit of self-help advice that we so often glean from it.  And the key to understanding that comes in knowing that Jesus offered up these parables not so much for the benefit of the inner circle of his followers and well-wishers, nor were they even directed primarily to the crowds of the curious that surrounded them, but rather they were for “powers that be;” that is, the Pharisees and scribes who were, as Luke succinctly puts it, “grumbling,” and complaining that Jesus was spending altogether too much time in the company of sinners and lowlifes.

Actually, in this instance, Jesus tells three parables which when told together culminate in that story of the prodigal son.  The first is about a lost sheep, or more accurately, about the shepherd so passionate about finding that missing member of the flock that he’ll leave the other 99 behind while he beats the bushes in the search.  And, wouldn’t you do that?  Oh, and while I’m on the subject, Jesus goes on to say, who among you, if you lost a coin – even if was only one coin out of ten – isn’t it true that you’d fairly well tear the house apart trying to find that one single coin?  And once you’ve found it – the sheep or the coin, don’t you just want just call all your neighbors and friends to celebrate that that which was lost is now found!

So… given all that, how about that rebellious younger son?  I mean, yes, he essentially tells his father to drop dead – whatever I’m getting in the inheritance, give it to me now because, Pop, I am out of here (!) – but tell the truth, which one of you wouldn’t do that for your son, to give everything you ever had and worked for to this obnoxious, ungrateful rebel kid of yours?  And then, once he’s left and he’s wasted all your money on parties and gambling and women, and then comes home looking like “the wreck of the Hesperus” and smelling of a pigsty, who among you wouldn’t welcome him back home with a hug and a kiss, not to mention the biggest homecoming celebration anybody’s ever seen?  Who among you wouldn’t do that?

Cut to the faces of the scribes and Pharisees, and of course, their scowls say it all:  No… nobody would do that…ever!

I mean, lost sheep and missing coins, that’s one thing; but feasts and fatted calves for lazy, irresponsible prodigals, that’s just crazy talk!  Actions have consequences, Jesus, and bad behavior results in punishment, that’s just the way it is; it’s what our sacred law says and that’s how we’ve always matters such as this, so why would you even suggest such a thing, Jesus!

And that’s when Jesus lets the shock give way to awe:  oh… excuse me, did you think I was talking about your behavior?  These aren’t stories about what you do; these are stories about what God does, about how God behaves.  Don’t you get it?  God is the seeking shepherd who will sacrifice nearly everything in order to bring the lost one home; God is that woman who is relentless in her search for one little lost coin amongst many.

And yes, God is that waiting father, who when he sees his son “while he was still far off,” doesn’t even consider what’s gone on in the past; just that his beloved son who he believed to be dead and gone from his life forever was home! And so he ran – of course, he ran (!) – he literally sprinted across that field to embrace him and welcome him and celebrate his return.  Because “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine persons who need no repentance.”

Or to put it another way, forgiveness is ours to receive and that forgiveness comes from God.

Last week, you’ll remember that we talked a lot about the importance of and need for repentance: that crucial opportunity that you and I have to change and turn around and do what needs to be done to bear fruit before God; and the need for and the receiving of forgiveness is all wrapped up in that.  But that gives rise to a question, one that is very much a part of this parable and, for that matter, one that’s been debated across the ages: what comes first, the repentance or the forgiveness?  Asked another way, in order to be forgiven do we first need to come clean for all your sins and start a new life, or is the new life the result of being forgiven?  Truth is, we can make a case for both points of view in this story.  Quite honestly, our human attitude – not to mention the way we do confession in the church – it tends to side with the idea that repentance is required for forgiveness.  But that’s what makes the story that Jesus is telling about this sinful, “prodigal” son so radical.

I love what the late author and Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon wrote about this: he maintained that even when the younger son “[comes] to himself” there in the pigsty, there is no real repentance.  “This is just one more dumb plan for his life,” he said.  Yes, he does confess the sin. “That’s true.  He got that one right.  ‘And I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.’ Score two.  He gets that one right” too.  But then he gets it dead wrong:  he starts to negotiate; he tries to rationalize out what his best bargaining points are. Maybe I can work as a hired hand, or whatever; honestly, this is not unlike a kid coming to confess his or her transgression and then adding, well, at least I’m being honest about this so that maybe it’ll reduce my time of being grounded?

Ultimately, wrote Capon, “this is not a real repentance; it’s just a plan for a life.  [But] what it is, is enough to get him started going home, and consequently, when he goes home, what happens next is an absolutely fascinating kind of thing.”

It’s God.  God is what happens!  Did you notice in this story that the father never actually says anything to the son?  There’s no effort to extract a confession from him, no “what have you got to say for yourself, young man?”  There’s just this loving embrace and the kiss, this incredibly emotional welcome home.  It’s only after all this that the son manages to get the confession out of his mouth; and even then the father’s already busy calling the servants to get this party started!

It’s amazing, isn’t it?  The scribes and the Pharisees, and yes, even you and I, we tend to think that in order to receive the forgiveness and restoration we’ve been seeking we’ve got to do everything properly and in good order; but here’s God who just up and forgives, not because all the dots have been connected but simply out of love!  And it’s all because of this relentless desire of God that his children should be welcomed home; that’s the source of this amazing and unending joy “in the presence of angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

And don’t misunderstand here, the prodigal does repent; it’s just that as Jesus tells the story, the real confession and the true repentance comes about in celebration of the forgiveness that he got for nothing!  None of us, you see, can earn forgiveness;  there was nothing that the prodigal son received in his homecoming that he actually deserved.  For all practical purposes, he was indeed dead; he had ceased to be his father’s son.  And yet in his father’s arms he rises from the dead and he’s able to take his place again at his father’s side.

And yes, I totally get the anger and frustration of the older son – don’t you?  I mean, doggone it, he was the “good” son!  He’s done everything right, and we can understand how he isn’t about to sit down at the same table with what Barbara Brown Taylor has beautifully described as this “self-centered, pig-loving, sin-sick brother who has cost his family so much grief.”  sThe older son represents every one of us who have strived to do the right thing and follow all the rules and yet feel like we’ve never gotten the credit we deserve for doing so. It’s a telling tale that even when the father makes his case for forgiveness, we’re never told whether or not the “good son” ever buys his father’s argument.  And we do understand that kind of reluctance; for just like the older son, we do like to know who’s right and who’s wrong, and it does feel kind of good if you’re the one vindicated in the process!

But at the end of the day, you see, it’s not about what we do.  Yes, it is good that we’re living the life of faith as we should, great that we’re “walking the walk” more than merely “talking the talk.” But ultimately, it’s what God does that matters. And here’s the thing: this old, familiar story serves as a fresh reminder to all of us that what God is doing in Jesus Christ, what’s soon to happen on the cross – indeed, what’s already happened on the cross – is all about God’s utterly indefatigable determination to welcome each and every one of us home from wherever we have been, no matter how far off.

There is deep within each and every one of us a want, a need, a deep yearning for home.  It might be found in a physical structure, it could be with a family or a circle of friends, and it so often finds its expression in our gathering together as the people of God in this sacred place… a place, a people, a life where we feel truly welcomed home.  Well, the very good news is that God wants to welcome us home… the question is, what will we do about it?

To quote Barbara Brown Taylor again, while all this is going on with the father and the older son, “there is a banquet going on.  You can hear the music and the dancing even out in the yard, and there is plenty left to eat.  Your father won’t make you go in the house.  He’ll just stand in the yard with you to protect you, the same way he protected your brother.”

But, here’s the thing you need to remember: he does want you to come to the party and to come as you are! This is a true celebration; it is a gift to be forgiven and to be welcomed home.  All you need to do is say yes… accept the gift that’s offered you and come inside!  And when you do, if you do, then nothing’s ever going to be the same; life… new life is yours.

So come on in, because the celebration is on…

… and thanks be to God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
 

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The Impossible Possibility

(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…”

Say what?

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 allUsually, 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

 
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Posted by on February 24, 2019 in Epiphany, Faith, Jesus, Life, Love, Sermon, Spiritual Truths

 

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