February 20, 2011
Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
February 20, 2011
The Rev. Leslie E. Chadwick
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
1 Corinthians 3:10-11
For the past few weeks the news has been dominated by the revolution in Egypt. Young Egyptians and Tunisians brainstormed together online about how to organize protesters and get their message out. They announced a day of protest via Facebook. They shared “practical tips” like “Put vinegar or onion under your scarf for tear gas. Pour milk into your eyes. Put cardboard and plastic bottles under your clothes to protect you from riot police bullets”(David D. Kirkpatrick and David E. Sanger, “A Tunisian-Egyptian Link that Shook Arab History,” http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/14/world/middleeast/14egypt-tunisia-protests.html). One online leader, a 31-year-old executive for Google concluded, “Now the nightmare is over. Now it is time to dream”(Ibid).
The Jewish people in Jesus’ time long for their nightmare to be over. They dream of being free from tyranny and injustice. Local leaders are corrupt. Tax collectors squeeze every last penny from the poor. Roman soldiers stop people on their way to work or market and force them to carry their baggage miles in the opposite direction. The people are sick of being at the mercy of others. They are ready for change. Jesus, the Messiah, has the perfect opportunity to organize a revolution. The crowds follow him up the mountain to hear what he has to say. Jesus says plenty about responding to oppressors with non-violence, but he doesn’t stop there. Listen to this modern translation of the gospel we just heard and imagine being on that mountain. Jesus says, “Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it”(Eugene Peterson, The Message). I imagine that the crowd murmurs in surprise. The people wait hungrily to hear where Jesus is going with all this. But he doesn’t set a day of protest. Instead, he calls for life-long resistance. Jesus continues, “You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves....[God shines the sun] on the nice and the nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that….In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up… Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you” (Peterson, The Message). Grow up? That’s his message? People shake their heads and the crowd begins to thin out. It’s no wonder that Jesus only has a handful of faithful followers in the end; and they desert him when he decides to put his words into action on the cross.
Jesus is not interested in leading a political revolution. Nor is he satisfied with systems like an “eye for an eye” that only keep the cycle of violence and hate from escalating. Jesus wants more from us. Whether our enemies are national or personal, Jesus commands us to act in love instead of reacting in hate. He came to earth, died, and rose again to overpower the cycle of violence and hate with love and forgiveness. Through his death and resurrection, he has given us a new place to stand when it seems as if we’re out of options. We are to stand right in the middle of God’s love.
Standing there instead of fighting back is easier said than done. It’s hard to love people when they invade your personal space. Your first impulse is to react with hostility. The base of your brain signals, “Threat! Enemy! Push back!” I was reminded earlier this week of how quickly the reptilian part of my brain takes over at such times. A woman wanted more help with rent than we could offer her. She got into my face and began to push my sternum to make her point. I thought, “Back off, lady!” It’s very hard to see someone else as a child of God at times like that. As adults, we feel that space threatened not just when someone physically crosses a line, but when anyone challenges our place in our family, our job, or what we hold dear. A pushy new person marries into our family system. A neighbor suddenly grows cold and angry over a dispute. A spouse or family member fails or betrays us. We catalogue wrongs, replay conversations in our heads in the middle of the night, and exhaust ourselves thinking of how the other person needs to change his or her behavior. Jesus reminds us that at such moments, we are not defined by another person’s behavior. We are children of the living God. We are defined by agape, the love of God which flows in and around us all of the time. My friend Gail suggests, instead of reacting from the base of your brain, respond from a place of strength: “Stand in the river of God’s love and say your enemy’s name” (c.f. Barbara Crafton at a Shrine Mont Retreat).
This image, the river of God’s love, is a powerful reminder that we don’t have to stay in that place of resentment. We have another place to stand as children of God. The river of God’s love is strong, living, ever-changing and ever-constant. It is abundant and never-failing. When these waters rush over us, we feel secure, loved, cared for. As we stand in these waters, it’s a relief to let go of hoping another person will change. We regain perspective there. We have more than enough and will never be left alone. Sometimes when we hold grudges against each other and well up with anger, our hearts become as hard as rocks. We may have to stand in that river for years to let God gently wear us down and smooth out the edges. Acting in love toward those who mistreat us is not something we can do alone. But when we choose to stand in that river, God’s love shapes us and washes us clean. In his sermon on our gospel reading, Martin Luther King, Jr. also speaks of loving our enemies out of this overflowing love from God. He says, “When you rise to love on this level, you begin to love people not because they are likeable, but because God loves them” (“Loving Your Enemies—Martin Luther King Speeches” http://www.mlkonline.net/enemies. html).
When enough people choose to love this way, God can do remarkable things through us. He can bring about reconciliation where there was hate; new life where everything was cold and dead. We celebrate the power of God’s redemptive love today in the service of baptism. We will have had 10 baptisms here between Christmas and Lent. I pray for my daughter and for each of these children that they will be strong inside as they grow up. I pray that they will not hit back, but that they will act in love as enemies come and go. May the water of baptism remind them that no matter what people take from them, they cannot take away God’s love. They are never alone. The community of Christ, the people of God, stand in this river together. We hold each other up, remind each other of what matters, and help each other remember that our Savior’s love is more powerful than hate and violence. Jesus Christ empowers us to respond to our enemies and neighbors out of this great river of God’s love instead of standing alone, defending a small circle of turf that cannot ultimately be defended. The question today, is not who is my enemy, but who am I called to be as a child of God? Jesus’s revolutionary message is this: Live generously. Love even if someone won’t love back. May they know we are Christians by our love.