Feb. 24, 2019 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, Feb 24, 2019 in Epiphany, Sermons

The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany (Year C)

February 24, 2019

Hearing this gospel is like hearing parents tell children to eat their vegetables when they really don’t want to. Kids don’t much care about how nutritious they are, only how distasteful it’s going to be to eat them, and it doesn’t get any easier as they grow cold. Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you.  It is impossibly hard! Whom do we count as enemies or hated? We don’t have to look far given our political climate especially, and every generation has their MVPs; in this case, ‘most vile people.’ I recently saw a chart showing a spectrum of who inspired the most vitriolic feelings; Donald, Hillary, Mitch, Barack, Nancy, Bernie, Robert, people on food stamps, wealthy people, unions, United Nations, Atheists, Muslims, Russians, Gays and Lesbians, Mexicans, Wall Street bankers, immigrants, Congress—and moreit is such a long list! (From a chart by Larry Bartels, in Kevin Drum’s article, Mother Jones, 2018). There is so much hate to go around, it’s soul-crushing. How do we begin to love as Jesus tells us if this is where we start? This is the hardest work of Jesus’ message and it’s not for the feint-hearted. Sure, people want to hear the good news of Easter, the beauty of Christmas, or to hear some megachurch pop-star preach on ‘Five easy steps to God’s Giving you Happiness and Wealth’ but how many of us come here hoping for a high-level challenge like loving enemies or blessing those we hate?

Too often Christians have been criticized for saying this more than doing it, rightly so. This is the hard truth of the gospel and the tall order of being a follower of Jesus. Doing this isn’t necessarily going to make us feel better or solve life’s problems as if it were a self-help program. We hear Jesus say “your reward will be great” and think that’s what he means, or if we do all this right Jesus will love us more because we’re better people; sorry, that’s not what he says. Remember that “God loved us even while we were still sinners”? That means us and those we hate. That might be where we start to understand this sermon of Jesus’s – if God loves me and that list of ‘most vile people’ maybe that’s something I can work towards too. God loves us even when we’re not up to the task of loving others, even when we try and fail to do so—and yet it’s still right here in front of us; Love your enemies. God doesn’t move me further up the favorite child list if I do good on this; that’s not the ‘great reward’ Jesus speaks of. God loves us with radically unconditional love because of who God is, not who we are. Who we become in the process of loving those we might deem unlovable enemies or hateful beings is our reward. It’s going to take practice and intention and humility, like any other great outcome—be it by a dancer or surgeon or artist. The end result might look exquisite, but the one doing it knows how many hours of painful self-discipline it took. Being a follower of Jesus who loves the enemies doesn’t happen overnight or because we’re promised a reward, but practice makes us better at it. We have to learn to play a scale before a symphony. I invite every one of us to commit today to learning to play that spiritual ‘scale’ of loving our enemies. Our psalm today says, “Put your trust in the Lord and do good.” Even when it’s incredibly hard.

Columnist David Brooks is working on something called Weave: The Social Fabric Project. The idea being to weave people who care at the local level with community building and personal relationships, weaving the social fabric of our world together in this time of ripping so much apart. Brooks says, “We’re  living with the excesses of 60 years of hyper-individualism. …the idea that life is an individual journey toward personal fulfillment. You do you. But Weavers share an ethos that puts relationship over self. We are born into relationships, and the measure of our life is in the quality of our relationships. We precedes me.” As he names and observes these Weavers who practice this, “the trait that leaps out above all others is ‘radical mutuality’” making him want to be more more active and intentional in extending care. “We don’t just have a sociological problem; we have a moral problem. We all create a shared moral ecology through the daily decisions of our lives. When we stereotype, abuse, impugn motives and lie about each other, we’ve ripped the social fabric and encouraged more ugliness.” Weave aims to change that culture one personal example at a time, from self-focused individualists to actively caring relationalists.

As we hear today’s scripture, I wonder if we don’t hear it like an unrealistic music teacher demanding we play with skills we don’t have. Is Jesus knowingly making an impossible demand just to get us to feel guilty? Is he just too divine to understand how hard this is for mere mortals? Did he maybe mean it as an abstract theory and not one we have to really do? After all, we seem to keep our animosity in check in front of the children or in polite company, we’re pretty much good people who mean well, right? These are all the usual responses to those tougher commands, but what if this is less of a command or demand, and more of a promise, an invitation? Think about that long list of most hated people and how much hatred there is; what if these words in today’s gospel are Jesus telling us it doesn’t have to be that way? Jesus gives us an invitation to try the other option, of treating that list the way we want to be treated. No matter how sure we each are that we’re right about who to love and who is our enemy, that’s all trapped with us in this binary world of not-enough-to-go-around and having more means someone else has less. God’s love doesn’t work that way because it’s not trapped in this world. Imagine loving those who love you which is easy, and those who don’t love you—do we think God chooses like that? Jesus isn’t inviting us into the exclusive Christians-Only-Club so that we can get ahead or know the secret to getting the most treasure by our world’s standards, Jesus is promising us something more, so much more that it breaks the boundaries of this world and is part of the life to come.

I had an atheist philosophy professor whom I dearly loved, respected, and disagreed with. He asserted there were no miracles because they would ‘break’ the universal laws of nature, the ‘give and take’ of how it works. For him the closed system of the universe precluded miracles by its very definition, and so there was no proof for God’s existence. When we love our enemies, forgive those who hurt us, bring kindness in the face of pain, we are interrupting those cause-and-effect processes. Instead of living in a world which says violence earns violence, hatred deserves hatred, injury warrants revenge, we break this cycle of sickness and bring healing, we break the cycle of destruction and create something new. This is as close to a super-power as we get outside the pages of a comic book or movie! This teaching of Jesus promises us and gives us the power to make miracles.

Jesus’ invitation into God’s grace in action breaks the laws of this life by reminding us that we are not limited by this world, in Christ we have eternal life and that means all the rules are different. “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.” That might all sound about right for this world, but then what is given? “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.” The grace of God is more than we can contain in this life, and that’s Christ’s promise. It is a path illuminated by God’s grace, a path Jesus sets us on as he continues giving this ‘Sermon on the Plain.’ Last week I talked about how in the Hebrew Scriptures ‘the plains’ or level areas were usually places of suffering, hunger, death, disgrace and mourning. Prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel knew they were also where, in the midst of all that, God’s glory could be revealed, and where God’s renewing hand could be seen at work in the world. This invitation to love our enemies can be transformative. It’s part of Jesus foretelling the promise of coming renewal and new life in the Kingdom of God, not as a reward for good behavior but in keeping with Christ’s mortality-breaking love which cannot be contained in one world.

A few weeks ago, a woman said she was moved to come here to pray for someone specific. Normally that means a family member or friend they love who’s ill or dying or in crisis. No, this felt like God calling her to pray for someone she didn’t know personally, someone whom she might even have characterized as something of an enemy. And she does it! Not for reward, she just prays. Last year a man I’ll call Mark asked me to pray for someone because Mark couldn’t find it in his own heart to do so. He knew he “should” be able to but couldn’t let go of his hatred. Mark showed so faith and hope just by asking, and we prayed for this abusing person whom he hated, and to heal Mark’s own heart enough to do so. The grandchild of one who was deceased was inconsolable because they’d not reconciled before her grandfather’s death. On All Saints Day she wept because here she realized her grandfather’s life continued in Christ, and she felt forgiveness in his presence that day.

When I read this scripture this week I inwardly groaned in self-conviction—obeying it is indeed the equivalent of my mother’s dreaded creamed cooked spinach, when I consider it in light of the feelings I have when I read the news or encounter needless abuse or cruelty. That’s not what I want to feel or how I want to live. It just leaves me stuck in ugliness. And yes, changing that is going to take something akin to a miracle. So that’s what I’m praying; for the miracle of Christ’s love to break the laws of my small universe and heal my cynical, small-minded, self-righteous heart, and while he’s at it, to forgive me for having failed so often. Jesus began this teaching with, “I say to you that listen…” Lord, may we be those who listen, who love, who bless. Amen.

© 2019 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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