Year C, Epiphany 7
February 24, 2019
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“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.” Amen.
That’s the sermon. Any questions?
Our Gospel selection from St. Luke is taken from what is known as the Sermon on the Plain. (It’s parallel is St. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount). The actual language in the text is level, “…he stood on a level place…” In fact, this is the moment when Jesus leveled with them, His disciples and a great multitude from all over Palestine… “This is what is means to follow me.” “This is how the Commonwealth of God is made really real, by you, right now.” “This is the engineering of Resurrection based on the pure science of love.”
The Gospel of Jesus Christ has explicit and radical ethical implications. The sermon on the level and its counterpart in Matthew are the heart of those implications. If we understand that we were created, redeemed and are sustained by Love, by a loving God revealed to us by loving people, then yes, our conduct in the world as directed by that God should accordingly, be loving. These words to us today tell us what applied love looks like. But even here, in this list of explicit dos and don’ts, the scope of the sermon on the level is beyond ethical conduct or right action, it is commentary on the nature of the universe.
As the presence of light makes the darkness to cease, the presence of love displaces evil. Light existing in the universe doesn’t mean that darkness doesn’t exist, just like the fact of love, the fact of a loving God doesn’t mean that evil doesn’t exist, it does, even in our own hearts, but evil, darkness are not the end of the story. Death is not the end of the story. Resurrection is.
We’ve been reading from St. Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth for most of Epiphany. Throughout this chapter he addresses the whole idea of resurrection. It is a lot, resurrection. A lot to consider. A lot of mystery to grasp. If you don’t quite have your mind wrapped around it, don’t worry. The folks in Corinth didn’t. I don’t quite; I’m working on it. I hope you will, too, especially as we move towards Lent. Resurrection is the most Christian of Christian ideas.
“What is sown is perishable,” Paul writes, “what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown in a physical body, it is raised in a spiritual body.” This is Paul’s unfolding of the very nature of resurrection in all of its temporal and physical as well as infinite and spiritual implications.
Being hated, hating… the nature of a hate-based relationship is perishable. Apply Jesus, apply love, and what results is imperishable. It is resurrected. Abuse is sown in dishonor. Met with love, it is raised in glory. It is resurrected. A blow on one cheek is dealt in weakness, the second cheek offered in love is power. Your coat is taken physically, your offer of your cloak is a spiritual response. Death is proffered. Girded with the love of Jesus Christ, Resurrection is the answer.
I think of Gandhi’s 1930 Salt March. The British colonial administration had a monopoly on salt production. Gandhi sought to non-violently reclaim that basic staple. It was just like he was always spinning cotton on a little wheel and wore only homespun garments in order to reclaim the clothing of India from the looms of Birmingham. He gathered his soul warriors, the satyagrahi, and they marched 240 miles from their ashram to the sea to make salt. At the end of the march they encountered rank upon rank of truncheon bearing colonial police. Rank upon rank of satyagrahiwalked slowly into those clubs. They were beaten down unmercifully, rank after rank of them. But the blows were not the end of the story. The perishing swings of the clubs were met with imperishable love. With each swing the Empire perished morally that day, and India was resurrected in the imperishable love of those injured marchers.
Loving our enemies, doing good to those who hate us, turning the other cheek, giving to all who beg, doing to others what you would have them do to you, these are, as one commentator calls them, “Eschatological practices. God’s promised future of mercy and love breaks into the world through our practice of these principles.” “Forgive and you will be forgiven; give and it will be given to you.” That not only is a sign that the Commonwealth of God is near or happening, doing those very acts makes it nears, brings it about
Resurrection is the transformation of the perishing to the imperishing. The finite to the infinite. The last to the first. The master to the servant. The dead into the living. It takes that which is corrupt and makes it into something holy. It takes this sin sick world and turns it into the Commonwealth of God by the practices Jesus lays out for us in this sermon.
This is world changing stuff. Gandhi freed India with these principles. The Reverend Dr. King’s (practical and successful) philosophy of non-violence is sourced here. The Truth and Reconciliation movement of Archbishop Tutu saved South Africa from the bloodbath that loomed as the apartheid state crumbled under its own sinfulness. All of them read Matthew and Luke… closely. And resurrection followed.
There are holy revolutions to be fought, sanctified barricades to be raised and occupied, political systems to be purified and reformed. But for most of us, that is not our field of ministry. Some of us have tendrils that touch the broader world. Some of us have influence city wide. For most of us, though, our spheres of influence extend over our family and friends, maybe our immediate neighbors, our church, or our workplaces. Small potatoes in the scheme of things, but then if you look at God’s design of the world, the vast, vast, overwhelming majority of what happens in the universe is small potatoes. When Jesus offered this sermon to His disciples and the great multitude, some were involved in a life and death struggle with the Roman Empire, or the Herodian collaborators, or the corrupt temple bureaucracy. For most, though, their big troubles were the big troubles we all suffer: brother’s-in-law that drove them batty, unforgiving bosses, uncooperative neighbors, pig-headed co-workers, dishonest rivals in the market place, bullies… most people’s lives then, as now, are just simply life-y. And that, just trying to live life in a God-ward fashion is more than most of can do gracefully, let alone overthrowing an empire or whatever charlatan has the keys to the kingdom in any given moment.
What I mean is that you can bring the Commonwealth of God into existence through getting on with your mother better. You can contribute to the salvation of the world through how you deal with your ex-spouse. (Or your current spouse to keep them from being an ex). In the way you conduct yourself in your life, you can affect nothing less than resurrection. The story of Joseph we heard this morning is a little more dramatic than most of our family lives, but those were family issues that he brought love to bear upon. The eschatological practices that Jesus lays out for us are for all of us, not matter how dramatic our lives are or are not.
So if someone takes something from you, you just don’t ask for it back. Is that it? Well, yes. Dorothy Day and her cohort owned a couple of farms in rural Pennsylvania. At one point, some members of their community schismed off and moved onto one of them. They took it over and wouldn’t leave. Day and friends could have gotten the sheriff involved and evicted them, it was completely within their legal rights, but they knew Luke and Matthew, so they just walked away and let them have the farm. That’s what they thought Jesus would do, so they did. Can you imagine?
I’m not there. Most of us aren’t. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be, that we shouldn’t try to be. No, we should all aspire to follow the letter and spirit of the sermon on the level. These are the basic ethics of the practicing Christian, and are without a doubt the most important practices of Christianity. And there couldn’t be a higher standard, or a tougher road to hoe than this.
Jesus is good at telling us whatto do. Where the Gospel gets a little thin is howto do the things we are told to do. Here is where the communion of saints is very helpful; they lived it, hence they are saints. We can learn from them.
Martin Luther King is one of the saints who leads others to the peace of God’s saving embrace. In his sermon we read a month ago, “Loving your Enemies,” he offers three ideas about how to practice loving your enemies. But these ideas about more than that, they offer us a whole path to following the Jesus way, the way of resurrection.
The first practice it to be self-aware. We must understand that some people will not like us. The way you look, how you do your job, the things you have… some people will dislike you and not necessarily for good reasons. And, sometimes, there are good reasons. Maybe you have wronged someone. Maybe you don’t even know it. Maybe your presence, how you live, what you have, what you do does in fact diminish someone else, or your ancestors diminished their ancestors. A lot of men, we just don’t get how our presence, our just bee-bopping along in our lives can impact women. Or white folks in relation to people of color. Or those of us with class and educational privilege, what that might bring up for a poor person, or one born with less advantage. (That’s a key story of the 2016 election). The privilege of maleness or whiteness or upper middle classness is that you aren’t forced to deal with your impact on others, your experience is the cultural default. We have to be self-aware.
Second, if we hope to learn to love our enemy or give when asked, or forgive when someone needs forgiving, we must find the good in the other. That can be had to find, in some. Sometimes people are just rotten (it happens), or they have hurt you so badly over the years, or they are actively trying to harm you now, that it can be hard to find anything good in them. It is not just finding the good in an enemy, but seeking to understand why they are acting so badly. Either way, if we pay attention only to the bad, that is all we are going to see. The most menacing, ill-behaved, drug-addled character on the street is there because terrible things happened in their life. Certainly bad choices were made along the line, but when the choices before you are trash or garbage, or you’ve been so beaten down with trauma that your higher order decision making processes have been compromised, or you have a developmental disability as so many out there have, you might see that even making bad choices is not always blameworthy. Or that your miserable co-worker is actually miserable. (No one is at their best when miserable). Or that your judgmental and accusatory boss wasn’t loved by their mother very well. Very few people are simply mean or evil; almost always something helped them become that way. Find the good or understand the reasons behind the bad. (And if you have trouble doing that, think back to step one – why do you do the bad things that you do? How could someone find good in you if they primarily noticed the bad parts?) Finding the good in the other is the second step towards the practice of resurrection.
The final way, in the words of Dr. King is, “…when the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it.” Defeating an enemy, or getting away with not being generous, avoiding a simple kindness, or even if you could 100% justify your well-reasoned and empirically flawless judgement about someone’s, say, performance as president of a major wester power, that is something that maybe you should not do. That is the time to be more generous. Be more kind. Be less judgmental. That is the time to hold someone up in prayer. If you can’t actually pray good things for them, fair enough, that can be exceedingly hard to do, but that makes it even more important. Just try saying their name (silently) during Prayers of the People. Hold them up to the light of God. (If you need to, imagine how much sunlight hurts vampires. You’re killing them with prayer). Kill them with love. Slay them with a hint of a possibility of forgiveness. Nothing confounds an evil-doer (or an obnoxious relation or a petty rival) than being kind to them when they least deserve it. When given the chance, don’t defeat them. Defeat never works. Final victory is the resurrection of everyone.
The eschatological practices of the sermon on the level are all about affecting resurrection right here, right now. Going from darkness into light, evil into goodness, death into life: those are the fruits of resurrection. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…” These are its practices. This is how we, the living, make resurrection happen, now. AMEN