A Sermon for 24 February 2019
I read wise words this week regarding the text I’m getting set to read – the portion of the gospel of Luke assigned by the revised common lectionary for this 7th Sunday of Epiphany. By the way, Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday is on the way next week with Lent beginning on Ash Wed a few days thereafter. Just to get us all in an open frame of mind, I want us to hear those wise words first, so we might willingly keep our ears open for the reading of the gospel!
Of Luke 6:27-38 – the words immediately following the gospel of Luke’s version of the Beatitudes – the Blessing and the Woes of the Sermon on the Mount, biblical commentator Vaughn Crowe-Tipton writes this: “Congregations respond to this text in the same way my children respond to seeing cooked spinach on their plate at dinner. No matter how much I explain the nutritional value, no one around the table really wants to dig in. I suspect preachers are not terribly different. Even though we know enough to understand how texts can be bound by culture and time, we also know this text goes down hard, no matter when or how it is served. Perhaps we should not be surprised that professionals and neophytes in scholarship and faith struggle to swallow what Jesus served us in this text. Maybe he would have had an easier time of it if he had left this item off the menu. Goodness, Jesus, who wants to love an enemy?” Crowe-Tipton goes on to write: “Jesus focuses, however, on the real problem with nutrition; there is a vast difference between what we want and what we need. All who dare prepare a sermon with the ingredients Jesus offers will do well to remember that tension. (‘Cuz) no one comes to (worship) on Sunday already thinking, ‘I would really like a challenge today; perhaps I will be asked to love my enemy.’ Nevertheless, that is what Jesus demands. Look at this text for what it is. Jesus offers this ridiculous teaching to his closest followers. Remember that anyone else who heard it probably laughed out loud and with good reason.” Crowe-Tipton writes: “This clarion call is to swim upstream. It asks the disciples to break conventions, to stand out in a crowd, to find fulfillment in going a second, third, and seventy-seventh mile” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1, Vaughn Crowe-Tipton, p. 381, 383).
So, with this warning in mind; let us listen for God’s word to us in a reading of Luke 6:27-38. This next portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain according to the gospel of Luke. Listen.
“’But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 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. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32 If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 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. 35 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 (God) is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. 37 Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38 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.’”
This is the word of God for the people of God.
Thanks be to God!
In 1906, a man was born in Germany who would grow to become a force in such opposition to Adolf Hitler, he was seized by the age of 37 and taken to Tegel Prison in Berlin. (Details here from http://www.dbonhoeffer.org/Biography.html.) Nearly two years later, he was moved to Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Then two months after, executed by hanging at Flossenburg – 29 days before World War II came to an end. When just 31 years old – six years into his ordination as a Lutheran pastor and a few years after helping to establish an underground seminary for the German anti-Nazi Confessing Church – this devote follower of Christ wrote the following words: “How then does love conquer? By asking not how the enemy treats her but only how Jesus treated her. The love for our enemies takes us along the way of the cross and into fellowship with the Crucified. The more we are driven along this road, the more certain is the victory of love over the enemy’s hatred. For then it is not the disciple’s own love, but the love of Jesus Christ alone, who for the sake of his enemies went to the cross and prayed for them as he hung there. In the face of the cross, (Christ’s) disciples realized that they too were his enemies, and that he had overcome them by his love. It is this that opens the disciple’s eyes and enables (us) to see (our) enemy as a brother. (We) know that (we) owe (our) very life to One, who though (we) were his enemy treated (us as brothers) and accepted (us), who made (us) his neighbor, and drew (us) into fellowship with himself. The disciple can now perceive that even (our) enemy is the object of God’s love, and that (our enemy) stands like (ourselves) beneath the cross of Christ. . . . God loves God’s enemies,” who the author explains, are all of us sinners. The author goes on to write in this infamous work entitled The Cost of Discipleship, written by the young Dietrich Bonhoeffer just after the Gestapo closed the underground, anti-Nazi seminary he helped to start. Bonhoeffer writes: “God loves (God’s) enemies – that is the glory of (God’s) love, as every follower of Jesus knows; (because) through Jesus” we have become partakers “in this love” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer [1906-1945], The Cost of Discipleship; New York: Simon and Schusster, 1995, pp. 150-151).
The words from the gospel of Luke may be some of the most difficult commands on the lips of Christ. Love our enemies? And I don’t think he was talking about just those big, world enemies we like to name. But what about the family members with whom we just cannot get along? What about the neighbor who seems to care nothing about the needs of others in the neighborhood and just takes and takes and takes from all the other property owners around? What about ones with drastically different worldviews? What about the person at work, or at school, who maybe even has done something really terrible to us? Let me be clear – because this part of scripture long has been mis-heard and at times even mis-used by being thrown in the face of those hurting at the hands of another. Failing to have proper boundaries between ourselves and another is not at all love! Turing a blind eye to abuse, neglect, violence is NOT love and never to be tolerated by Christians who rightly are to know and to work for the difference between good and evil. Never is the Jesus of the gospels puzzled over the rightness of things like his arrest. His flogging. His humiliating execution. Never once would we hear on his lips that the injustice he confronted daily was ok – no big deal. Rather, every day of his life – even in his death – Jesus, the Christ, God embodied among us, worked to heal those hurt by others; to call those doing the hurting to change; and to work for the abolition of hatred in this world. The only way he could do that was by love.
You see, Jesus teaches us that love is what allows us to see and thereby live differently. He actually prayed to God that those killing him would be forgiven – and wants us to live that way too. He knew their act – our act – was wrong. Love is clear on that. But love. His love – the kind of love he expects of us, his followers, harbors no bitterness. Holds no grudges. Is way less concerned about punishment than it is about healing. It’s not like what we often see around us each day and I know – heaven knows – it certainly isn’t easy. It’s God’s way. The narrow path, Jesus called it. The Way into which we all are invited.
In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer went on to write: “This commandment, that we should love our enemies and forgo revenge, will grow even more urgent in the holy struggle which lies before us and in which we partly have already been engaged for years. In it love and hate engage in mortal combat. It is the urgent duty of every Christian soul to prepare itself for it. . . . And how is the battle to be fought?” Bonhoeffer writes, “Soon the time will come when we shall pray, not as isolated individuals, but as a corporate body, a congregation, a Church: we shall pray in multitudes (albeit in relatively small multitudes) and among the thousands and thousands of apostates we shall loudly praise and confess the Lord who was crucified and is risen and shall come again. And what prayer, what confession, what hymn of praise will it be? It will be the prayer of earnest love for these very sons of perdition who stand around and gaze at us with eyes aflame with hatred, and who have perhaps already raised their hands to kill us. It will be prayer for the peace of these erring, devastated, bewildering souls, a prayer for the same love and peace which we ourselves enjoy, a prayer which will penetrate to the depths of their souls and rend their hearts more grievously than anything they can do to us” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer [1906-1945], The Cost of Discipleship; New York: Simon and Schusster, 1995, pp. 150-151).
Prayer for our enemies – not that they get what we think they have coming to them. But prayer that earnestly asks God to provide what’s needed in them and in us for us all to live together in peace may be the best first step for us in loving those who hate us and curse us and take from us again and again. It’s the most powerful way to live in the world. Refusing to allow the hatred of another to permeate our own hearts. It reminds me of the beautiful, challenging prayer said to be left by an unknown poet near the body of a dead child in the Ravensbrück Death Camp. “O LORD, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all the suffering they inflicted on us; remember the fruits we have brought, thanks to this suffering – our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this. And when they come to judgment, let all the fruits which we have borne be their forgiveness” (Quoted in The Wisdom of Jesus, by Cynthia Bourgeault, pp. 73-74).
It is tough stuff – to stand in such love. Costly discipleship . . . may it be the command of Christ we seek to fulfill every day!
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2019 (all rights reserved).