“Loving Enemies?” Colchester Federated Church, February 24, 2019, (Luke 6:27-38) Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

When I was in high school our youth group went on a work trip to Philadelphia—we stayed at a UCC church right up the street from the Liberty Bell and spent most of our week serving in soup kitchens and homeless shelters.  One evening most of us were outside playing basketball and a man walked up asking to see a Pastor.  One of the guys ran inside to get our Pastor (Jonathan) who escorted the man into the church.  Jonathan and the man eventually came back outside, got into one of the vans, and drove off.  When Jonathan returned he was quiet and looked like he was wrestling with something.

Every night we had what we called “Candle.”  We would sit on the floor in a circle and have a lit candle in the darkened room to represent the light of Christ.  We would go around the circle and share what the day had been like, what we learned and experienced.  That night Jonathan told us that the man came to the church for money.  There had been a death in his family and he asked Jonathan for $100 for a bus ticket home to Detroit.

Jonathan drove him to the bus station, though it was a one-way street and he couldn’t find parking.  He was holding up traffic in this unfamiliar city, but pulled the van over as best he could, put $100 in this man’s hand, and said something like, “I’m trusting that you’ll go into that bus station and use this money to buy a ticket to get home to Detroit.  May God bless you on your journey.”  Jonathan drove off and kept looking in the rearview mirror and saw the man not go inside the bus station, but instead walk up the street and disappear.

That night at Candle my Pastor looked around at all of us.  And he quietly said, “It would appear that this man lied and that he didn’t need money for a ticket home to be with his grieving family.  Should I have refused to help him (knowing that this does happen) or should I have given him the money anyway?”

It remains a good question.  Today we heard more challenging words from Jesus as he continues to teach his followers about the kingdom of God and how we are to treat one another in the Sermon on the Plain.  We heard the Golden Rule: “do to others as you would have them do to you.”  We also heard Jesus say: “Give to everyone who begs from you.”  “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.”  “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.”[1]

Let’s face it, there could be a whole sermon series on just this section of the Sermon on the Plain with a sermon on each one of these topics.  The Golden Rule.  Loving your enemies.  Being merciful.  Not judging.  Forgiveness.  These are difficult teachings that can be stumbling blocks for many would-be Christians or even stumbling blocks for life-long Christians.  Admittedly this sermon is less organized and structured than usual because my own thoughts are all over the place wrestling with this complex text.

The reality is that it’s easy to talk about loving your enemies until your enemy terrorizes you every single day at school or work.  And it’s easy to talk about being merciful until a loved one is hurt or even worse.  And it’s easy to talk about forgiveness until something happens in our lives that seems unforgivable.  It’s why we debate about whether Jesus meant for these teachings to apply solely to his audience in ancient Palestine (the crowd that he was looking in the eyes and preaching to that day.)  Or if Jesus intended these words to apply to those who would follow in his footsteps long after he delivered this sermon on the level place.  Because the reality is that these teachings can change our lives and make us better people.  But they do need some interpretation.

For instance, Jesus says that “if anyone strikes you on the check, offer the other also.”[2]  Now do we honestly believe that Jesus intended for people to just allow themselves to be abused over and again?  Letting someone continue to harm us also harms the person perpetuating that violence.  Maybe not physically, but emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.  Violence takes a toll externally and internally.  Jesus was challenging the notion of an eye for an eye which was a common form of justice in his own time.  Jesus was demanding love and forbidding spite and retaliation in order to have a community structured on kingdom of God values and not just the values of the world.

Violence met with violence often leads to more violence.  Of course self-defense is a different matter.  But we’ve seen how violence can spin out of control more often than not.  Violent words can lead to violent actions, and the world becomes an even more difficult place to navigate.  So it’s important to remember Jesus preaching love of enemies.  It’s not something that we particularly like to hear.  Though we also keep in mind Jesus’ most important command to love God, love our neighbors, and love ourselves in the midst of all of these teachings we’ve been hearing lately.

Jesus further talks about not judging and you will not be judged, not condemning and you will not be condemned.  These words remind us that only God can ultimately judge human beings.  When we find ourselves feeling pretty high and mighty and judging other people, Jesus reminds us to leave the judging to God.

This section of the Sermon on the Plain also includes Jesus’ teaching to “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”  The Common English Bible translates that verse as, “Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate.”[3]  Mercy and compassion are complex and nuanced subjects it could again take many sermons to tackle.  Actually in the book Speaking Christian New Testament scholar Marcus Borg argues over the usage of the words mercy vs. compassion.  Borg makes the case that mercy implies that we should forgive people who have offended us just as God forgives us.  But that for many of us, mercy is too narrow a concept.  Maybe to get to the heart of what we mean in Christianity, we should be compassionate as God is compassionate.  That is the translation in the Common English Bible anyway.  Borg writes, “Mercy is a reactive virtue; we are called to be merciful on those occasions when we have been wronged.  Compassion covers a much larger area of life, indeed, all of life; we are to be compassionate.”[4]

Getting back to that experience from our youth group work trip to Philadelphia, we could argue that Jonathan showed both virtues.  Being compassionate in the first place and merciful after he had been wronged.  This was a powerful Christian model of behavior at an incredibly formative time of my own faith development.  When we kept reflecting on the situation at Candle that night Jonathan said that maybe one day that man would realize the error of his ways.  Maybe one day he would realize that he needs God in his life and this realization would fundamentally change him for the better.  Maybe one day that man would remember that a Christian Pastor once showed him compassion when he needed it, no matter what he spent that money on.  In the meantime, we had to wrestle not only with the concept of giving to those who beg from us and being compassionate as God is compassionate.  We also had to wrestle with forgiveness.

How do we forgive people who wrong us?  Being out $100 doesn’t feel great, but it’s certainly less painful than other things that may happen to us in our lives.  That’s a question that we can wrestle with forever.  Though Jesus’ call to love our enemies helps us on our way.  Because when we hold onto the hurt and the pain that someone else caused us we end up hurting ourselves the most.  Jesus came that we may have life, and have life abundantly.  So living lives mired in the pain of the past isn’t fully living because it’s not embracing who God is still calling us to be.

The invitation of Jesus today is the way of love.  The radical way of love, not some cheesy romanticized version.  Loving your enemies?  That’s incredibly difficult.  Not responding to violence with more violence?  But what if that makes us look weak?  Well, we know that in fact choosing love makes us strong.  Treating people in the same way that we want them to treat us?  But what if we just don’t particularly like that person?  Yet, there will be people who don’t always like us and we would still hope to be treated with respect.  The point is that these lessons that Jesus taught are meant to transform us because they fundamentally change the way human beings are prone to react.  If Christianity was easy, churches would be overflowing with people and everyone would attempt to live out these kingdom values.  Jesus was giving us another way of being in the world.

We’ll end today by thinking about these provocative teachings from the Sermon on the Plain as the heart of Jesus’ message.  Because the Gospel of Jesus Christ can be boiled down to some key teachings.  Years ago there was an article in the Christian Century where pastors and theologians were asked to submit what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is in seven words or less.  If we had to explain the entire Gospel message in a few words, what would we say?  Craig Barnes said, “We live by grace.”  Donald Shriver said, “Divinely persistent, God really loves us.”  Mary Karr said, “We are the church of infinite chances.”  Martin Marty said, “God, through Jesus Christ, welcomes you anyhow.”  Brian McLaren said, “In Christ, God calls all to reconciliation.”[5]

Words like grace, persistence, love, infinite chances, welcome, and reconciliation are at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Words to take to heart as we still follow in his loving footsteps.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Luke 6:31, 30, 35, 36, and 37, NRSV.|
[2] Luke 6:29.
[3] Luke 6:36, NRSV and CEB.
[4] Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power and How They Can Be Restored, 130.
[5] David Heim, “The gospel in seven words,” The Christian Century, August 23, 2012, ://www.christiancentury.org/article/2012-08/gospel-seven-words