Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Sermon, February 20, 2022

'Not only are we to maintain our humanity when others violate it. We also are to imitate God by actively loving those who do not love us.'

The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany

February 20, 2022

The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz, III

Text: Luke 6:27-39


Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.


Last week we heard of the two ways: one leading to life and one leading to death. Jesus pronounced blessings upon the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and those hated and reviled because of his name; and woes upon the rich, the full, the laughing and those well-spoken of. No economist, gastronomist, or humorist can define whether a person is in the ’blessed’ or ‘woeful’ category. It really is a matter of outlook; whether others exist for a person or a person exists for others.


That would be enough for us to chew on for the rest of our lives, but Jesus does not stop there. If with his blessings and curses last week Jesus seems to be willfully ignorant of reality, with this week’s commands about love for enemies he seems to be asking the impossible. If those who hear him take his words seriously, it appears, they will be, at the least, beaten, stolen from, lied about, and generally taken advantage of. Not only is revenge forbidden but redress of grievances seems to be ruled out as well. In his teaching, Jesus not only seems to be asking the impossible, but indeed the inhuman from his disciples.


But what if the reverse is true? What if Jesus is not asking something inhuman from the disciples, but instead inviting them to live as true human beings? He himself became a human being in order to live the truly human life as God intended it, not in some idyllic garden of Eden but in this very broken and violent world, among predators and thieves and liars. And those who follow him must be committed to this vision of true humanity as well – even though it look and feel very counterintuitive to what we feel is the flourishing life.


The true human is characterized by the words, ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you.’ But if we take these words out of their context, and quote them as a mere maxim for wise living, we lose all of their force and impact. We’re quite good at living by the so-called ‘golden rule’ as long as people are doing-well by us. But once someone does to us as we don’t want, we are apt to respond in kind. Inhumanity infects us, as it will, and quite soon we are caught in a spiral of anger which we never intended but don’t quite know how to escape from.


But ‘do to others as you would have them to do you’ does not end when someone does to you what you do not like. That is where it begins. It begins when you have been violated and respond, not with a corresponding violation, but with an action consistent with humanity and decency, an act which affirms the inviolability of the other person even as it affirms your right not to be violated.


When we call this saying of Jesus ‘the golden rule’ it sounds like a way to get along with people. We should stop calling it that, because we have to use it when we can’t get along with people. If you wish to be human in an inhuman world, Jesus says, you will need to be such a person right at the point when someone is being inhuman to you. Become infected, get caught up in a cycle of retribution, and sooner or later you will be separated from your humanity.


And yet there’s more! Not only are we to maintain our humanity when others violate it. We also are to imitate God by actively loving those who do not love us. Jesus goes so far beyond all of us, like our family, who have the wonderful plaques about love of family in their houses. ‘Family, friends, food, faith,’ etc. I know most of us have them. But would any one of us have in the house a plaque that said something like, ‘Sinners, enemies, ungrateful, wicked, we love them all.’ We have names for these kinds of people: zealots and religious nuts! 


It’s not that Jesus says not to love the family or negates the family responsibilities. But when we draw lines around our love, we can end up making the circle smaller and smaller. Jesus points out that if we wish to imitate God, the circle needs to become larger and larger. God’s circle of love includes all, actively showing mercy even to those who reject him.


 In Matthew’s telling of the sermon of Jesus, it says, ‘Be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.’ – but Luke has, ‘Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.’ I believe that Luke’s version helps us to understand the saying in Matthew. God does not expect perfection in the manner of a 100 percent on a test. Rather, he calls us to integrity – a mercy that does not discriminate between people, but imitates God’s mercy which is freely given.


We maintain our humanity even when others violate us; we actively show mercy in wider and wider circles – and finally with our words about others and to others we reveal the God in whom we believe. ‘Do not judge, do not condemn,’ has nothing to do with discerning right action or speaking a word of correction or counsel in turn. But when others are in our power, our words shall not condemn them. This can happen in the seeming privacy of a conversation with a friend, when we can use our words to tear down another person; or it can happen in public, where a person is completely at our mercy, when with words of derision and scorn we can destroy them or with words of charity and kindness we can restore them, affirming both their humanity and ours. 


The Joseph story is one of the greatest in Scripture. At its beginning, Joseph’s brothers have complete power over Joseph, and they use it to destroy the unity of the family, sending him far away into a dangerous and uncertain future. At its end, Joseph has complete power over the same brothers who sold him into slavery. He can judge them guilty and condemn them to death. In doing so he would be destroying those who had tried to destroy him. 


But it is in seeing God’s mercy towards him, and towards all of them, that he decides otherwise; his word is not vengeance, but mercy: forgiveness, not condemnation. And so the family is restored. The circle becomes even wider – to embrace the families of the brothers and even the nation of Egypt, among whom the Israelites will live in peace for many generations. until a new Pharoah who sees only enemies where friends might be, who lives not by trusting mercy but fearful hatred.


All of this, of course, is very hard to live out in our lives. But if it were easy, Jesus would not have had to tell us to do it. And like with Joseph, it can only be done by faith in a God who has a loving purpose for reunion. Even if we do not experience reconciliation, even if we must withdraw from others because to be in proximity to them will cause us to lose our humanity, we still strive for the mercy of Jesus because Jesus has had mercy upon us. In a world of inhumanity, the human one endured abuse and did not return it, to the point of death showing mercy to all, and praying, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’


And once in a while we get a glimpse of what Jesus is talking about. A pastor I’ve known for many years went through a parting with his congregation. Chief among his antagonists was a woman who was the council president. The bitterness and animosity ran deep, and the memories faded, but remained over the years.


Over a decade after, the pastor, surprisingly enough, received a call from this woman’s son. He was considering going to seminary and said that he considered the pastor a major influence in his life, and asked if they could meet for coffee, which the two of them did.


A few months later, before the young man was about to start his schooling, he invited the pastor to a picnic the congregation was having as a send-off. Excited, but nervous because of the way things had ended at the congregation, the pastor and his wife pulled into the church parking lot. The first person, of course, they saw, was the mother, the same woman who had been so vociferously against the pastor. Before they could even get out of the car, the woman rushed towards them. Addressing the pastor, the woman begged forgiveness for what she had done and how she had acted so long ago. With tears in his eyes, the pastor embraced her and asked forgiveness for his part in what had happened. Then the woman said to him, ‘Tonight will be the first night in fifteen years that I can sleep in peace.’


God’s family restored; the circle ever-wider; the enemy now a fellow sinner saved by Christ. Thanks be to God! 


                                                                                                                MCF +