February 24, 2019 – Sermon

Epiphany 7 February 24, 2019 Psalm 37:1-11, 2 Corinthians 3:1(b)-6, Genesis 45:3-11,15; Luke 6:27-38

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Jesus tells us to love our enemies and do good to those who wrong us. Bless those who curse us. Pray for those who mistreat us. And far as I can tell, Jesus doesn’t  make any exceptions.

He doesn’t say to love our enemies five days a week, but you can take the weekend off. He doesn’t say love all your enemies except those too evil or rotten to love. Doesn’t say love everyone except the Yankees, the Speaker of the House, the President, ISIS terrorists, or anyone we find difficult to love.

Jesus allows for no exceptions to his law of love. Probably because Jesus knows how shaky even the best of people can be in their less-than-good moments. As Christian author GK Chesterton has said, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors – and also to love our enemies – probably because generally they are the same people.” (That’s why we sing the hymn – “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness…”) Jesus knows our nature – knows what he’s saying is difficult…

But Jesus ratchets-up the bar of loving those hardest to love higher and higher anyway. Saying if someone smacks you on the cheek – turn the other cheek. If someone takes your coat, give the shirt off your back too. Give to all who beg from you, lend to all who ask without expecting to be repaid. All of which sounds pretty crazy – not to mention almost impossibly difficult. Though –

As I mentioned last week – Jesus is speaking very seriously always –  but not always very literally. He’s not intending this sermon on the plain (that we began hearing last week) as a supplement to the ten commandments, to be carved in stone…

When Jesus says to turn the other cheek he isn’t saying to endure abuse passively. In that day, for a slave struck by a master to turn the other cheek would be a way of shaming the master, designed to provoke repentance. Those abused and those who love theme should do whatever’s possible to make it stop.

And when Jesus says give to any who ask – I don’t think he means give money to drug addicts or gambling addicts. Give a sandwich, give a ride to a twelve-step meeting. But money isn’t always the right thing to give….

When he says “do unto others as you would like them to do unto you” Jesus is assuming we’re not masochists who enjoy water torture. When he tells us “love your neighbor as yourself” – he’s presuming sufficient healthy self-love.

We don’t have time to go point-by-point through everything Jesus says today. His main message, again, is – He’s turning the world’s values, expectations, and conventional wisdom upside down. And telling us – be like him.

I’m thankful for all of you who remind me, often of Jesus, and help me become more like him – as you love and forgive and pray for everyone. Thanks God for Anne Marie (here/in our Bourne church), who reminds us often to pray for our enemies. Something so easy to forget… without frequent reminders…

Which has me remembering again how Jesus deals with his enemies and opponents…As he faces much hostile interrogation and harassment from the religious establishment of his day. As even his hometown church drives him out of town and tries to kill him when he reminds them of God’s love for enemies – reminding the church of the Syrian army general Naaman, who defeated Israel on the battlefield – healed by the Israelite prophet Elisha. I’m remembering how Jesus faced down much skepticism even from members of his own family. Remembering how the same crowds that shout hosanna! as he comes into Jerusalem on a donkey…just a few days later shout “crucify him!”  Remembering Jesus crying from the cross, “Father forgive, they know not what they do.”

Remembering how Jesus does everything he tells us to do. As bible scholar William Loader says, “Jesus’ life is the best exposition of his teaching: self-giving love, even in utmost adversity, generates life – (life) for ourselves – and (life) for others.” When we practice the self-giving love of Jesus (Loader says) – we are participating in God’s life.

Participating in God’s life is inevitably messy. It gets us involved with the suffering of the world. Involved with people we’re not naturally attracted to…

Yet it’s only as we participate in the life of God… that we experience the richness and fullness of the joy of God’s presence. The loving presence of God, who weeps with us in all our sorrows, loves and laughs with us in all our joys…Who turns our woes into blessings – and invites us to join with Him in blessing those who curse us. Subverting the world, and pointing us to heaven.

As author Oscar Wilde said “Always forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them (quite) so much.” And as Abraham Lincoln, said, “Do I not destroy my enemies – when I make them my friends?”

 

What Jesus says to do is seldom easy. We know Jesus says to forgive. We pray forgive us our debts as we forgive those who  trespass against us…  We probably also know forgiveness is good for us –  spiritually of course – and also physically and emotionally. Forgiving helps lower our blood pressure and reduce our risk of stress-related disease. Forgiving helps us sleep better, feel better…

But even knowing all the benefits of loving those we find difficult to love… doesn’t always make loving and forgiving easy to do…. Especially when those we’re having difficulty with…  keep pushing our buttons…keep doing things we find hard to forgive….

Which, come to think of it – may be the same problem… somebody may be having… with forgiving me… or you… or us…Speaking of which –

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I spent most of yesterday watching and listening to the live-stream video of our United Methodist Church’s Special Session of General Conference in St Louis. As you may know, the United Methodist church family has been struggling for decades over our differences – especially differing understandings of human sexuality. After several decades of theological gridlock, delegates of our every-four-years 2016 General Conference commissioned a small group to come up with a plan to find a way for us to live together in more harmony… or break-up. That Way Forward group came up with several options – and from their list the Council of Methodist bishops recommended the One Church option which would make relatively small changes. Three other options, two of which would require divisions according to theology, are also contending for support in this Special Session. Some of the campaigning has been contentious. We have of course been praying for each other…

Though… I’m reminded of an online bible study I saw yesterday on today’s gospel reading, in which Mary McGlone, a Sister of St Joseph, writes: “When I was a high school sophomore, we had a teacher whom some of us disliked. When I complained to my mom, she told me that I must pray for the teacher. When I repeated my grumbling days later, Mom asked if I had done what she said. I said, “Yes.” In response to her raised eyebrows, I continued, “It was nearly impossible, but, yes, I am praying for her … to have a happy death before the end of the semester.” With a well-controlled facial expression, Mom told me that was not exactly what she had meant.”

I have not heard anyone pray for those they disagree with to perish. But I was glad to hear the first speaker in  yesterday’s opening day of Conference, a day set aside as a Day of Prayer, begin by confessing he has many likes and dislikes – and it’s easy for him when he prays ‘God’s will be done’…to think this is a lot like praying for what he himself would like to see happen. It’s easy even for pastors and church leaders, he confessed, to confuse our own will with God’s will…

Methodists from all around the world took turns at the altar throughout the day leading prayers.  Each praying for God’s will to be done. Each asking prayers for their nation and region of the world. Praying for justice, mercy, unity, and (many adding) also appreciation of diversity… as we go forward… Reah and I got a little teary-eyed watching the Philippines delegation make their presentation, singing Dear Lord, Lead Me Day by Day (the hymn from the Philippines we sang here last week). Describing some of their many challenges – poverty, terrorism, global warming, family separation… A deaconess we met two few weeks ago led a portion of the presentation. Each region made a similar presentation – each requesting prayers – each offering prayers for the whole body of Christ.

At the start of communion, participants were asked to share the peace of Christ with friends and others nearby – but asked especially –‘if there is anyone here whom you think you may have harmed or disrespected or otherwise might need to be reconciled with – please make it a priority to share Christ’s peace with them.’ An essential message for these times. (And all times.)

The way forward will be difficult – not just for Methodists. Catholic leaders in Rome this week have been seeking to chart a way forward from decades of abuse and cover up. Southern Baptists under new leadership are doing much the same. The way forward will be differently difficult for each part of the church, but it will be difficult for all. We need to pray always for all the other members of the one body of Christ…

We need to pray also for all our country. We obviously disagree with one another strongly on many issues. Yet if we believe in Jesus we know – another much better world is not only possible – it is coming, for sure. For all willing… to receive it. And the way to receive God’s kingdom is still – loving and praying for one another. No exceptions.

Jesus knows we can’t do all the things he tells us to do in our own strength. But we’re all made in the image and likeness of God – as we’re told in the first chapter of the bible. And God’s image, however broken and bent in the fall, is nonetheless restored by grace and faith in Jesus Christ. And so as Jesus reminds us often –  “All things are possible with God.”

We can love even our worst enemies – when we take every difficult person – every difficult situation – every difficult part of ourselves  – take it all to God in prayer – asking God to help us love as God loves. Good news! God answers that prayer every time we pray it.

Good news! God who made the universe still loves each of us perfectly –

Still forgives each of us wholeheartedly – and God, our God is still teaching us, his beloved children, through Jesus Christ our Savior –  to love and forgive one another – as we ourselves are loved and forgiven by our gracious and generous God.

Thanks be to God. Amen.