What I am about to say is really, really, well partially true. It actually has not been that hard, and I have almost actually succeeded, but I think I can say with the exception of one or two people I interact with, I live in a bubble here in Florida. It started before this last presidential election when people were cruel to each other on social media and if what they said upset me, I just unfriended them on Facebook. It was easier not to read their posts which would keep me up at night. Living in Miami makes it easy as well. We are buffered by Ft. Lauderdale from the rest of the country and people from the rest of Florida don’t like to travel here because of the traffic and the drivers. We live on the edge of our country and we can isolate ourselves from things we don’t like. And, of course, it helped that when I moved down here from Ohio as I knew no one but the people on the search committee, so my associations were going to be pretty much you, my church family from Riviera.
So, I can think nice thoughts about everyone, because I live in a bubble of loving people like you … people who wrestle with how to live as faithful ethical people. We worry about justice issues. We stock our food pantry, we worry about the planet and its fragile eco-system, the people who feel they are on the fringe of society, and the immigrants among us. I mean, what is not to love!
But then I go to our Sunday Bible study and we talk about things like forgiveness and loving like God loves us…. and I realize that my bubble needs to be popped. Part of radical love is loving those who are unlovable. That is the base of leading a Christian life. Listen now to what Jesus said to us about loving our enemies in Luke 6:27-38.
27 “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.[a] Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he 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.”
The Lectionary Reading for today is in what is referred to as Jesus’ Great Sermon on the Plain’. Much like the ‘Sermon on the Mount’, it has a section like the Beatitudes that we will be studying over the 40 days of Lent. In fact the passage for today comes right after Jesus list of blessed things and great woes where he says ‘blessed are the poor, the hungry, the despised, and those who weep. You will hear much more about those throughout the Sundays of March and April!
This Sermon on the Plain was delivered where a group of people are gathered because they wanted to hear what Jesus had to say and to be healed of various afflictions. Unlike other times he has preached or taught, Jesus is not giving a lecture to the public on the nature of ethics, values, and morals for all people. This sermon is directed to a group of people who are already followers of Jesus group. They have, as the expression goes, ‘already drunk the Kool-Aid and were disciples of his teachings. So this lecture, this sermon is for those who have made the commitment already to follow the teachings and moral code of Jesus. The sermon was, you might say for us. Jesus’ teachings here, sound a bit like a success and blessing theology, where if we do certain things, we will be rewarded beyond measure, but if you look closely at what Jesus is saying, it is a radical way of discipleship that was and is meant to turn the world upside down. In the lectionary verses for today, Jesus is saying that this ‘in-breaking’ of God into human history… the teachings of Jesus, are meant to make all the difference in how we respond to each other here on earth.
In Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain he lays out his ethic of generosity for his followers living in a hostile world. Jesus is preaching to world where people hate you, curse you, strike you on the cheek, steal your coat and your goods. Jesus says in this world where you are tempted to turn inward and protect only what is yours and your kind, we are to look outward, and we are not to judge, but are to forgive, and to offer love in a loveless world.
The jaded part of my personality laughs at such a foolish and naive ethic from which we are to live. And perhaps that is what we are challenged to do. This ethic is radical and well seems comical in our day and age. But is our world crueler than at the time of Jesus? Has sin somehow morphed into something larger in modern times? I doubt it. My guess is what Jesus was talking about is as wild then as it is now. Jesus is asking for a passive response to violence and evil. We are to turn the other cheek when we are struck, we are to give our shirt to the person who took our jacket, and we are to offer a gift to the person who steals from us.
It doesn’t seem to make sense, but let me tell you a story that might help. Early in my ministry I worked as an associate pastor of a large downtown church. It was one that is referred to as a tall steeple church or a cathedral like church. But it was an urban church and being one, it had its urban issues. One night the outside of the church was vandalized and graffiti was painted on the building. The police were called and they caught the two teenage boys who did it. The senior minister asked to see the boys and said he would not to press charges but made the arrangement for them to work around the church as their punishment. What he knew is that places that are vandalized are places to which the vandal feels no connection. So, they were asked to come to the church every afternoon for the rest of the school year. They probably thought they were going to be scrubbing the floors and washing the windows, but when they got to the church that first afternoon, they were met by a basketball coach who played ball with them. Over the next months they worked with the coach to develop a neighborhood basketball program which gave the youth in the area something to do in their free time. All the youth felt a connection to the property as it was theirs. There was no more vandalism around the church property.
This ethic of generosity for Christians living in a hostile world, gives us new lenses through which we view our situations. Instead of fighting back or getting retribution for things done against us, the act of giving to the wrong doer breaks the cycle of retribution. Turn the other cheek…. when your coat is taken, give your shirt as well. When I took the communications class at the YES Institute one speaker modeled what happens when you push back on someone who is pushing your buttons. Nothing. You will not be anything but animosity to each other. But if you give… if you take the initiative to listen and find mutuality with your enemy, they might be able to listen to you as well.
And finally, Jesus tells his disciples, Jesus tells us, that we practice this generosity with the full expectation of repayment from God….. not the recipient of our generous behavior. We forgive, not because it will change the person who wronged us or because it will restore harmony between us and the person we have forgiven, but because it will make us feel better. We will not be filled with the negative feelings of hatred and resentment that eat at a person’s life. We ‘love our enemies’ because in the end, we are happier if we do.
Jesus calls us to go against out instincts and what society has taught us about winning in life. Jesus tells us to swim upstream from society’s river, to break from convention, and to find fulfillment in going a second, a third, a thousandth mile beyond what is expected of us. Is this good news or is it bad advice? We are called upon not just to love the good and the virtuous, but we are to love the scoundrel, the unlovable and we are even called to love the person who kills innocent victims in a mass shooting. That is why we are called to and we did pray for Omar Mateen as well as the 49 people he killed in an Orlando nightclub; why we prayed for Nikolas Cruz and the 17 who were killed in Parkland last year, and Robert Bowers as well as the 11 people killed in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh this past Fall. We prayed for them, even though it was the hardest prayers we could say.
But the truth is, God loves us despite who we are, who we love. God loves us anyway… not because of what we have achieved, done, or claimed. We are loved solely because of WHO GOD IS. And for us, living in a world like ours where we are having trouble finding middle ground, this is important. The political climate is violent, the people are fearful of each other, and things have turned into an us and them in our country. But… We are the people who follow the teachings of Jesus. We are called to love our enemies. We are to try and understand those whose views are different than ours. This is very hard and painful, but this radical ethic is ours. When people put us down, we are not to lash out but are to continue our conversation. When people say mean things about us we are to find ways to love them, because in hating them we continue the polarization of our world. We do this because God calls us to this radical faith. And in the end, what allows us to love the way God does is a grace that is greater than our sin, our best intentions or even our hard work.
I want to close with something that a friend sent me this week. It is called ‘This is my Jesus’.
Saint Peter and the Angel Gabriel had a problem. Peter was sorting out people at the Pearly Gates letting some in and keeping others out…. But Gabriel was finding more people in heaven than Peter was letting in. They were befuddled. Gabriel told Peter to keep working and he’d get to the bottom of this. A few hours later he came back and told Peter not to worry; he had figured it out. ‘It’s Jesus. He is pulling people over the wall.’ Yes, dear friends, that is our Jesus. Amen.