Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you always.
We’re going to do a quick church history lesson. Have you noticed, throughout your life, that the date of Easter moves every year? In 2018, it was on April 1st. This year, it’s on April 21st. Next year, it will be on April 12th. Do you know how the date of Easter is calculated? It’s the first Sunday after the first full moon occuring on or after the vernal equinox. Got that? This was decided by the council of Nicea, a group of men who gathered in 325CE to make a lot of important decisions.
Do you also remember that the lectionary—the set of texts that we read each week—is on a three-year cycle? The goal being that, over time, we’ll tell all the stories, without getting too bored of the same exact thing.
Today, we’re marking the seventh week after the Epiphany, in year C, the third year of that three-year cycle. The most weeks between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday that we could celebrate is nine; the fewest is two or three, depending on how you count. Most of the time, we have around five.
Why am I telling you this? Well, because we haven’t had a seventh week after the Epiphany in a year C since 2004, which means that no one (who uses the Revised Common Lectionary) has preached on this Gospel since 2004, which means that, since you were perhaps a child in 2004, this might be the first sermon you’ve ever heard on Luke 6:27-38. Now, there may have been other circumstances in which you’ve encountered these verses—like a bible study you were part of.
But isn’t that interesting? These end-of-season stories are rarer, and depend on the trick of the calendar. Maybe that’s not interesting to you, but it was interesting to me, and made me think differently about how I approached this sermon. It might be another 15 years before you hear it again! I want to be sure we’re doing it justice—and learning a little bit about how the historical church decided what we get to learn about, together.
So, to this rare text we go! Do you remember last week, how Jesus was preaching a sermon, and preached about blessings and woes? This is the second part of that sermon. He’s still talking to his gathered disciples and followers and friends, and he’s still trying to impress upon them the capital-t-Truths of the kingdom of God.
These statements are less matter-of-fact and more suggestions, it seems. Rather than “blessed are you when…” each sentence is an instruction: “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” (Luke 6:27b-29).
This is the basis of a significant amount of Christian non-violence. Jesus did not respond to violence with violence, and so neither did the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King or other participants in his branch of the Civil Rights Movement. There are many pacifist Christian traditions that cite these same words from Jesus. In a world full of violence, it is counter-cultural to respond to that violence with its opposite—justice, peace, love, kindness, mercy, forgiveness. Once again, Jesus invites us into an alternative way of being in the world.
This may seem sort of par for the course, right? Like, Jesus is always telling us to do hard things, and we just sort of lump them all into “be a good person” and leave it there. But let’s do something kind of uncomfortable for a minute. No need to say anything out loud, but please think for a moment about your enemies.
Who are your enemies?
Who hates you?
Who do you reluctantly admit that you hate?
I told you it was going to be uncomfortable. It doesn’t have to be a single human person, because perhaps you don’t have an arch-nemesis because you are not a superhero. It could be a genre of people. An institution. A system.
When Jesus was preaching this sermon, the people he was with had a lot of enemies. This is hard for us, as 21st century Christians, to really grasp what it is like to be a hated religious minority. These people were living in an occupied territory where everything about them was under someone else’s control, and they were choosing to join Jesus and openly defy the powers that be. These people did not have to think very hard to come up with a list of people who hated them, cursed them, and abused them.
All the more controversial, then, for Jesus to say “love your enemies” to these people, right!? If you are routinely marginalized, oppressed, and otherwise harmed by the society you live in, how would it feel to hear “love your enemies” and “pray for those who abuse you” coming out of the mouth of your teacher and leader? Following Jesus is rarely easy.
Before we go any further, I have to clarify. I do not mean to insinuate that everyone who is different from you is your “enemy.” Our diversity is our strength. I also do not mean that you should maintain an abusive relationship.
Historically, many people have been counseled by their religious leaders to stay in abusive relationships and work them out. Many women have been told to pray for their husband and help him not harm them by loving him better. This is very dangerous, and that is not what this scripture should invite us to do. Sometimes, the best way we love ourselves and our neighbors is by ending relationships that are harmful.
So, when we hear these words from Jesus, what are we supposed to do? Scholars and religious leaders throughout Christian history have disagreed. I’m sure we’re all shocked. But Karoline Lewis, a preaching professor at Luther Seminary in Minnesota, thinks it’s likely to be the more difficult of the answers we come up with.
“What if we took Jesus’ words to heart and actually lived them?” She asks. “What if we did not relegate Jesus’ sayings in this passage to just aspirations of what’s possible but believed them to be activities that might indeed make God’s Kingdom palpable?”
Maybe, because we have been created by the God who loves us, and saved by grace through faith, the truth is that we have no other option. Maybe, when we understand that we are beloved children of God—not just nod our heads, unconvinced, but truly believe in our own belovedness and in our own freedom—there is no alternative but to regard everyone as equally beloved and equally free.
And this isn’t the discipleship olympics. We’re not here to suss out who is the best at loving their enemies or the best at turning the other cheek. We’re here to marvel at this good news—that though we have struggled, we are perfect in the eyes of God, who has been merciful to us even in the depth of our sin. We are free to be merciful because our God is merciful.
Yesterday, delegates to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church voted to restrict participation in their denomination. They tightened restrictions on LGBTQ+ people, disallowing same-sex weddings and openly queer clergy.
This is a devastating turn of events for our UMC siblings, and we will do well to pray for them and support them as they discern what to do. Some of them will leave the denomination to join a different one; some of them will leave the denomination to start a new Methodist denomination; some of them will stay where they are, and keep fighting.
The ELCA and the Episcopal Church, the two denominations we’re made of, have policies of inclusion for LGBTQ folks, but we are far from perfect at living into them. Queer folks are still turned away from some of our congregations, and queer clergy are still treated as second-class in some of our synods and dioceses. We lament this.
It seems, perhaps, that we could use this reminder about how to live together in love. We know, from our own lived experiences and from the stories of our beloved siblings that we hear, that it is hard. That’s why there’s a poster in my office that says WE CAN DO HARD THINGS. We can. You can.
The instructions for beloved community that Jesus lays out throughout his ministry were not easily agreed upon or simple to follow. Remember, even his disciples were always asking questions and doing it wrong. The people Jesus encounters in his community struggled to understand him, and often, when they did, became angry. Jesus’ message is complicated, and counter-cultural, and subversive, and revolutionary. And it’s also very, very simple. Luke 6:36 says “be merciful, just as your God is merciful.”
When we even begin to try to follow along with the teachings of Jesus, we dare to imagine a world in which love reigns supreme; in which life conquers death; in which justice and peace prevail over violence and oppression.
When we act on these principles, we show the world who we believe God is. We show the world that our God is a God of love, not hate or fear. That our God is merciful, not judgmental. That our God delights in each and every one of us. Bringing about the reign of God will be our life’s work, dear ones. But we can do hard things, with God’s help. Amen.