[Jesus said:] “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 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. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 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. 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 he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
“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. 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.”
Pastor Marc's sermon for 7th Sunday after Epiphany (February 24, 2019) on Luke 6:27-38. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below.
Every congregation in our denomination handles the prayers of the day differently. These prayers typically appear after we recite a creed and before we collect our offering to God. They, as defined in our worship book, follow a specific order that begins with words for the universal church and the well-being of creation, before moving on to the world, those who are suffering, and those who now rest with Jesus. Even though the order is standardized, congregations practice these prayers in a variety of ways. Here at Christ Lutheran, our prayers come from a book and we make sure to include in our bulletin a list of everyone we’re praying for during the week. We also invite you, during worship, to write any additional prayers on the pink index cards you see in the pews. But not every Lutheran church handles the prayers in this way. At the first church I ever joined, a different volunteer each Sunday composed all the prayers that were read. And at the church I served while in seminary, people were encouraged to share their personal prayers out loud. The people in that place felt free to admit their deepest fears and to celebrate their biggest joys as loudly as they wished. They had no problem asking God for help on their next social studies test and also for patience as they started their next stint in rehab. But there were times when those spoken prayers became contentious. Someone would offer a prayer and someone else would respond with a prayer of their own attempting to almost contradict or cancel out what the other person just said. For several months, prayer during worship was filled with tension, as two different people vocalized what others assumed were two opposing points of view. Prayer, in that space, was hard because of that conflict. And that conflict had everything to do with what we do with enemies.
Today’s reading from the gospel according to Luke is a continuation of what we heard last week. Jesus came down a mountain, to a level place, and was surrounded by a crowd looking for physical, emotional, and spiritual healing. While there, Jesus knelt down to heal someone on the ground. He then looked up and began speaking his great “Sermon on the Plain.” Now, this sermon, I think, is rooted in the grittiness of everyday life. Jesus was literally surrounded by a crowd of people so he gave them words that would make a difference in the here and now. As we heard last week, Jesus began with a series of blessings and woes, pointing out the people that God loves and who we tend to ignore. Our text today is the next part of Jesus’ sermon and he chose to continue with something that might seem a bit out of the ordinary: he chose to talk about enemies.
Which is, sort of odd, because it’s hard to imagine that the crowd Jesus chose to heal, one filled with the oppressed, the sick, and the demon possessed, would also be full of enemies. We know in other stories about Jesus, that those who are actively against him are sometimes identified and named. When Jesus talked about enemies, we expected to actually see some. But, today, we don’t. Instead, Jesus doesn’t seem to make a distinction between his friends and his enemies. Through the power of his presence and with words of grace, Jesus chose to heal everyone. He didn’t ask each person who they were, where they lived, or what they did. He didn’t even invite them to name their sins. Jesus just healed, and through his words and actions, showed what it looks like when the kingdom of God is near. He offered and gave out mercy, and when he finally knelt down to describe what he was doing, he told his followers: “love your enemies.”
Now, we’re pretty sure we know what an enemy is. An enemy is someone who wants to inflict us harm. We tend to, I think, prefer identifying our enemies in this way. But we’re less comfortable admitting how we also call others “our enemies” regardless of what they do. Jesus, however, began his words in a specific way. The enemies he first pointed to are the ones we chose on our own. “Love your enemies” also means, “love those who you hate.” Jesus, while surrounded by the messiness of everyday life, offered his disciples a way of living that was more than just responding to what others are doing. He, instead, began his words by asking his followers to look at themselves first. Because Jesus knew that our behavior towards each other reveals exactly who we are. If we, as they did in Jesus’ day, treat our relationships as primarily transactional, we base everything we do by first asking, “what’s in it for me?” Our interactions in the world are based then on what others can first give us. This kind of living assumes all human interaction begins, and ends, in our own self-interest. And even our enemies are defined by what we can get.
So Jesus, in the face of a way of life that looks at what others do first, said “love your enemies.” Our relationships, and also our identity, are not rooted in what we are going to get. Instead, everything about us is rooted in what we already have. Through our faith and through our baptism, we have already been wrapped up in a Christ who, first and foremost, just loves. This love for us isn’t defined by our worthiness or by a way of life that assumes we could, somehow, repay God. No, we are loved because that’s who God is and that’s what God does.
Today’s commands from Jesus are ones we might want to try to take figuratively because they are so hard to do. But they’re words that, because we take Jesus seriously, demands we take them literally. That doesn’t mean, however, that these words are to be used to keep us trapped in a cycle of abuse. If you’re being abused, that isn’t God’s plan for your life and these words from Jesus are not designed to keep you where they are. Rather, Jesus’ words are here as a sign of what God’s love, as an action, can actually do. When we trust that Jesus really meant it when he preached that the kingdom of God was near, we end up living into our identity as a community who, like Jesus, loves. This active love can take many forms but one way all of us can embody it is through prayer. Back at the church I served while in seminary, the contest prayer space was a place where people struggled to deal with enemies. Each week, someone would name those in the military who were killed while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, asking a prayer for their families and also praying for all who were killed and wounded in those war-torn areas. The other person in that place felt that, through the tone of the prayer and the words used, that a partisan agenda disrespectful to those who served was being offer to God. They would immediately respond with a prayer for the military and the United States. While in the middle of worship, between scripture, creed, and holy communion, a prayer that dealt with enemies ended up drawing a dividing line that some thought were enemies of each other. The moment of prayer itself became a contested space where a side felt like it needed to win. Yet Jesus says because of him, because of the Cross, because of your faith, and because you are children of the Most High - the goal of the Christian life isn’t to win. The Christian life knows it’s, ultimately, already won. And because we have Jesus and we are a part of him, we can pray for all our enemies. In the words of Melinda Quivik, “feelings have no bearings on our capacity to express love for our enemies. Love of enemy means living in the hope - and acting towards the possibility - that your enemy’s life can be conformed to the goodness God desires for all people” (Feasting on the Gospels, Luke Volume 1, page 169). Jesus’ command to love and pray for your enemy isn’t, in the end, about your enemy. Instead, it’s all about the life you lead. And when we finally learn how to love truly like Jesus does, we will discover exactly who God wants us to can be.
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