Epiphany 7 (C)
A sermon preached by Intern Pastor Bob Schaefer
Fir-Conway Lutheran Church
The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany - February 18, 2001
Text: Luke 6.27-38
[Lk 6:27] “But 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.  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.  Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.  Do to others as you would have them do to you.  “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.  If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.  If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.  But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.  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;  give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
Beloved in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
The text for preaching this Sunday is the Gospel reading from Luke, especially verses 27-31: "[Jesus taught his disciples:] 'But 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. 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. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.'"
Jesus said many hard words during his three short years of ministry. It wasn't unusual to find his disciples scratching their heads and murmuring to themselves in puzzlement, trying to make sense of his teaching. Just as often, I imagine, they understood exactly what Jesus meant, but were so bothered by the implications of his sayings that they tried to find some other meaning, any other meaning except the difficult one. Our Gospel today is chock full of hard sayings of the second variety.
They're so familiar that we don't even notice at first how hard they are. Who hasn't been told at some point in their life that they should "do unto others as you would have them do unto you"? Who has never suggested that a friend "turn the other cheek" to an offense? "Love your enemies," we are taught from our earliest days, until it is part of our Christian vocabulary. We hear these sayings all the time... but the words go in one ear and out the other without ever registering in our brain. If they did, we would be joining the disciples in pretending we don't understand, hoping that Jesus will give us an easy way out. If we would only listen to ourselves, we'd hear how hard Jesus' words really are.
There are three things that Jesus is trying to teach us in these hard words. First, he tells us that we must love our enemies as well as our friends. Second, he reminds us that the kind of love he's interested in is not a feeling, but an action. Third, he teaches us that the kind of love we are supposed to show our neighbors is the exact same kind of love that God is showing to us. Let's take a quick look at each of these lessons.
We must love our enemies as well as our friends. And we can take that teaching absolutely, 100% literally: We must love our enemies as well as we love our friends. As well as we love ourselves, even. This goes against our grain. Our gut instinct is to lash out against those who hurt us, to attack our enemies with all our might. The law of the jungle demands it; our hate keeps us sharp and alive, ready to fight. Loving our enemies makes us vulnerable to them, and we rebel at the very thought.
A few nights back I happened to catch an old episode of M*A*S*H on the TV. A wounded young American GI had been brought to the 4077th for surgery before returning to action. His injuries weren't serious, but he bragged loudly about how he had dispatched the North Korean soldier who fired on him. Lying in the recovery area after being patched up, he discovers that very soldier in the bed next to him. Watching this Korean, his despised enemy, die slowly before his very eyes--from the wound the GI had inflicted on him--the young American breaks down. All his bravado is gone now, and he finally sees that his mortal enemy is just a man like him. Even as he is learning what it means to love his enemy, he is loaded up into a transport and taken back to the front lines. This newfound love for his enemy seems absurd amidst the gunfire and the landmines. He is vulnerable in a new way out there. And yet, this is exactly where Jesus would have this young man's heart be. "Love your enemies" is a strange, hard word.
The second thing that Jesus is teaching us is that the love he's calling for is an action, not a sentiment. Our culture tends to think of "love" in terms of sappy Hallmark cards and "I"s dotted with little hearts. We imagine love to be essentially a feeling that we have in our hearts for someone. Or something. In fact, we use the word rather carelessly. We love our family. We love football. We love chicken Alfredo. We love "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?". "Love" gets so watered down that we forget that its a verb.
What sort of actions does Jesus associate with the word "love?" Doing good to someone else, he says... that's love. Blessing them... that's love. Praying for them... that's definitely love. Giving generously, even recklessly... now you've got it. Forgiving extravagantly... without a doubt. Doing for them what you hope they would do for you if the tables were turned... that's exactly it. Doing. Always doing, not feeling. When we can do these things toward every neighbor, even our enemies, we will almost certainly feel love toward them as well... but Jesus calls us first and foremost to act, not to feel.
The third thing that Jesus teaches us with these hard words is that this is not only how God treats our neighbors; it is how he treats us. It's easy for us to believe that our neighbors-- both friends and enemies-- are in need of this special treatment, but the fact of the matter is that this is how our Lord treats us, as well. He gives us good gifts, knowing that his "investment" in us may be wasted or even used for evil things. He blesses and prays in his Spirit for us. He died for us while we were still sinners--while we were literally his mortal enemies. And when he was pierced through one arm with a nail on our behalf, he gave his other arm as well. When we recognize our sinfulness we begin to understand that "do to others as you would have them do to you," means, "do to others as God has done for you."
What makes these sayings so hard is that if we're really going to live them out, it's going to cost us. It's clear that to really turn the other cheek to someone is going to sting. Forgiving someone and loving them after they've hurt you means giving up your right to make them pay, and that's a sacrifice. Giving to someone in need, whether you think they're a "good investment" or not is an outrageously risky proposition, and it's going to hurt in the pocketbook, or in the pantry, or maybe even in your arms and legs and back. The kind of love Jesus is talking about is, in the end, a love that suffers and a love that sacrifices. And it is the only kind of love that can turn around and redeem the person who is being loved.
You might ask, how can suffering or sacrifice be redemptive? Or, to put it another way, what good does my suffering do the person who is causing the pain? This kind of sacrificial love can redeem a person because it catches us so off guard. We don't see it coming... we expect retribution, tit-for-tat, an unmerciful heart. The shock of being loved in the middle of our wrongdoing, or of being helped generously in our hour of need, gives us a glimpse of God in action. It is a witness to God.
In Greek, the word for "witness" is martyr. We all know that a martyr is someone who has died for his beliefs, and history has proven time and again that the cause of a martyr can take on a whole new life after his death. Jesus calls us to put our hate, retribution, and self-interest to death as a witness to his love. Over time, that kind of witness can break through even the hardest of hearts. Over time, that kind of love can get through to even the most despicable enemy. Love that dies, love that is a martyr, love that is a witness... that's the kind of love that can redeem a person. That's the kind of love that Jesus has, and the kind of love he wants us to have.
It was once said, "It belongs to the church of God to receive blows rather than to inflict them--but she is an anvil that has worn out many hammers." The anvil of sacrificial love is harder than the sturdiest hammer lifted against it. In the end, it is the hammer and not the anvil that will be worn down, but only by the anvil receiving each and every blow.
These are hard words we are hearing today. They go against our nature... in fact, they are so hard that only God could ever live up to them. But it is God who calls us to love sacrificially, and it is God who gives us the power to do so. And it is God who works in the hearts of the people we love for him, so that our sacrifice of love doesn't go to waste. This kind of unruly, unreasonable, unbelievable love is the mark of God's Kingdom, which is why it seems so unearthly to us. It requires us to give up our individual senses of pride, justice and honor, and trust in the Lord to work the good from the sacrifice. It forces us to give ourselves over to God's will.
Listen to these hard words from Jesus today, and don't run away from them. Listen with your ears, and listen with your heart. Pray about these hard words, and trust in them. Most of all, live them out. It is God the Anvil who will help you to love this way. He knows all about sacrificial love, trust me. Blow by blow and witness by witness, his kingdom is coming. You'll never believe the way he's going to use us to make it happen, if our hearts are open to his sacrificial love. Amen.