Embracing the Enemy

Sunday, February 24, 2019
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Luke 6:27-38

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies.” How shocking that must have been for the crowds who heard Jesus say these words so many centuries ago. Yet, for us today, it isn’t any less shocking. Loving your enemies is not an easy thing to hear or act on. So, the first thing we need to ask ourselves is who is an enemy? The dictionary describes an enemy as a person who is actively opposed or hostile to someone or something. An enemy is a person or thing that harms or weakens something else. An enemy is an adversary, one who works against us, inhibits us, and who keeps us from being all we were created to be. No one wants to have an enemy or be an enemy. No one wants to be hurt or be beaten down. Yet, enemies exist real or imagined.

Fear, prejudice, guilt, shame, resentment…these are some of our biggest enemies. And the truth is that these enemies reside within all of us. Yes, we ourselves, can be the biggest enemy. Everyone, at one time or another, has been their own worst enemy. We put ourselves down for our perceived failures. We ridicule ourselves for being less than we know we can be. We say things to ourselves that we would never say to anyone else. Or we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are better than others. Either way, we are being the enemy. We are holding ourselves back from all that God created us to be. And when we do this our perception of others is altered as well. So often, the thing we hate or judge in someone else is the very thing we struggle with ourselves.

While it’s true that the crowds that heard Jesus first speak these words were most likely thinking of their oppressors like the Roman government as enemies, and the people and places that didn’t follow their own customs and religious beliefs like the Samaritans for example, but Jesus was trying to get them to understand on a deeper level that the enemy is a lot closer. And even those who have themselves been abused – through no fault of their own – at some point end up hurting themselves more because of self-blame because it has become internalized. Thomas Merton, in his book New Seeds of Contemplation, says, “Instead of hating the people you think are war-makers, hate the appetites and disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed – but hate these things in yourself, not another.” Jesus challenges us to go even further. He challenges us to overcome hate with love, and that begins with loving ourselves first. This is not a narcissistic self-love, but a real love that comes from embracing who we are as beloved children of God. We were each created in God’s image, and made to be bearers of God’s divine light. Yet, along the way we have forgotten this. And more times than not, we focus on the perceived darkness in everyone else, which diminishes not only their light but our own as well.

What if we took Jesus’ words to heart? What if we truly listened to these words he spoke on the plain? What if we loved our embraced the enemy? What would that look like? It requires thinking in a new way. Jesus said, “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.” This may seem that Jesus is advocating for us to be doormats, and allow people to abuse us. But Walter Wink, in his books The Powers That Be, and Engaging the Powers, explains more about the culture of the day in which Jesus spoke these words.

If I hit with my right hand—it lands on your left cheek. I could hit with my left hand and land on your right cheek but in the Middle East left hands are saved for unclean actions With my right hand to your right cheek, I have to back hand slap you, and back hand slaps were to insult or humiliate an inferior person. They were never done to an equal. So by turning the other cheek, a person was causing the one about to hit them to have to use the right hand against the left check requiring an open hand or fist meaning they would be acknowledging that person as an equal. And by giving someone your shirt as well as your coat would mean you were left standing in front of the person half naked. The person viewing your nakedness in that culture would be shamed the most. It was a way of saying, here, “You want my coat, take everything!” So what Jesus was challenging people was to not only stop seeing themselves as victims, but to stand up to their oppressors in a powerful non-violent way. When we change the way we look at things, things begin to change. Our perception makes all the difference.

Loving our enemy enough to allow transformation to happen first must take place within ourselves. We must see and acknowledge the enemies within ourselves – fear, prejudice, judgement – realize they are there, embrace them for what they are, and let them go. Once we rid ourselves from the enemies that hold us back, and accept that we are beloved children of God, then we can see others in a different way. Through self-forgiveness we are freed to forgive others as well. By focusing on being bearers of God’s light and love in the world rather than focusing on the darkness we add more light to the world.

As this season of Epiphany draws to a close, may we be open to feel and experience God’s transforming grace and mercy that transforms enemies and brings true peace. Amen.

 

 

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Today This Scripture Has Been Fulfilled in Your Hearing

Sunday, February 3, 2019
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Luke 4:21-30

 

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Our gospel reading from Luke last week ended here right after Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah. The scripture he read said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” He then rolled the scroll back up, and said, the words we began with this morning, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” When Jesus first read these words from the prophet Isaiah, these words of hope and promise were familiar, and people like familiarity. But Jesus’ words quickly moved people from a place of comfort to a place of uncertainty and eventually rage. Instead of letting the Holy Spirit fill them through the hearing of God’s word, they allowed a spirit of anger to fill them. The same people who had just praised this home-town wonder for possessing such power, now tried to throw him off a cliff! You might wonder, how did that happen?

It happened because Jesus challenged the status quo. The people who heard Isaiah’s message of hope and promise felt good because they thought it was just for them. They had heard about the miracles he had performed elsewhere. And now that he was home, certainly he would help them. With the kind of power he now had Jesus would fulfill all their desires. Things were finally going to change; things were finally going to turn around. After all the years of oppression by enemies, praying “how long O Lord” they felt God was going to answer their prayers in the way they wanted. They had great expectations, great plans for Jesus to carry out!

But instead Jesus called them out on it. He knew they wanted him to “Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” Jesus disrupted their plans by pointing out God’s plans. He pointed out that God saved the widow at Zarephath in Sidon – enemy territory. And God healed the Syrian commander, Naaman, again the enemy. Jesus’ hometown crowd wanted a victory rally, not a reminder of how everyone who hurt them and didn’t deserve it was rewarded. They didn’t want to hear that God’s plan was for salvation for all people. God’s plans, God’s dreams were different than theirs. And hearing that Jesus was promoting new dreams and plans incited them to rage.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we act exactly the same. When someone tells us our dreams and plans have to change, it makes us angry.  Most people would rather drive others off a cliff – including Jesus – than really hear the truth and be open to change. And maybe we don’t literally try and kill someone like the crowd that day did with Jesus, but the anger spills out in the form of cruel words, or emails, or text messages. We act unkindly toward each other and refuse to hear each other. We don’t put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. And we may withhold forgiveness, affection, or even the sharing of our gifts of time, and talents, and money. We can look at this story and say, “Jesus was only trying to open their hearts and give them an even better dream than they had before, how could they try and kill him for that?” But we forget that Jesus said, “Whatever you do to the least of these you do to me.” (Matt. 25)

It’s easy to get angry when we’re challenged to look at things in a new way. It’s easier to shut people out and build walls than to try and find new ways of living together in community. We don’t always want to look at things from Jesus’ perspective because that may mean we have to give up something. But we’re missing the point. That’s what being a disciple of Jesus is all about. It means we are giving something up. We’re giving up our old life to follow Jesus. It means we’re giving up our dreams to be a part of God’s dream. It means giving up everything that separates us from God so that we can make room for the Holy Spirit to work in and through us. It means loving like Jesus calls us to love. And love as St. Paul writes is not merely an emotion, it is an action. It is a way of being. Love means speaking the truth even when it is hard like Jesus did. Love means standing up for the poor and the oppressed like Jesus did. Love means treating others with respect and dignity. Love means being to risk it all for the sake of God’s mission – just like Jesus. This takes courage, but Jesus showed us how to be courageous, and gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit to empower us.

Jesus was incredibly brave to speak the truth and he asks us to do the same – to speak the truth in love, always in love. St. Paul says in 1 Cor. 13 that love “rejoices in the truth.” It rejoices in the truth because the truth sets us free. Yes, it can be hard to hear the truth. It can be painful to admit we’ve been wrong, which is why repentance is a word people try and avoid. But if we can be open to the truth it will transform us into the people that God created us to be. Repentance means turning around and that is what Jesus wants us to do, to turn around and see the truth and let it set us free.

Several years ago Pope Francis spoke to the US Congress about repentance, and maybe he needs to speak to them again. He spoke about caring for the poor and the oppressed. He spoke against those who want to hold on to money at the expense of others. He spoke words of truth like Jesus, and the people in Congress didn’t want to hear these things.. They didn’t want to hear about all the money they were spending on things that were not helping God or others, but helping themselves, and they still don’t. When the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, heard these words from Pope Francis it made the headlines because he cried. And even more than that, several days later he resigned as Speaker of the House. Now I don’t know John Boehner personally, but something unusual certainly happened as a result of Pope Francis’ address to the Congress. It was evident that the words of truth that Pope Francis spoke touched his heart and led him to look at his life differently. Speaking the truth in love has the power to do that. It’s not the love of power that changes people for the better, it’s the power of love.

Love is the essence of who God is. Love is the heart of what being a follower of Jesus is all about. Love is what being a church is all about, and when love for God and all that God has made is our focus, everything else becomes clear. Love is not just an emotion, but an action, a way of life that we are called to live. That kind of love is available to us through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus said, “Today the scriptures have been fulfilled in your hearing.” Are we willing hear this good news? Are we ready to let go of our plans and dreams, and be a part of God’s plans and dreams? God’s vision and dream for us, for our congregation, our community, and our world is far better than anything we could design on our own.

Let us pray, Holy Spirit, open our hearts; move through us, change us so that we may change the world, and bring your good news to all. Amen!