Sunday, October 12, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Children of the Most High"

Luke 6:27-36

 27 “But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either. 30 Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take them. 31 Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you. 32 “If you love those who love you, why should you be commended? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended? Even sinners do that. 34 If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, why should you be commended? Even sinners lend to sinners expecting to be paid back in full. 35 Instead, love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. If you do, you will have a great reward. You will be acting the way children of the Most High act, for he is kind to ungrateful and wicked people. 36 Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate. (Common English Bible)

“The Sermon on the Mount’s Little Sibling: Luke’s Sermon on the Plain,” Week Three

There are only two days, out of 365 in the year, when my high school cafeteria didn’t smell like a perpetual pit of body odor and teen spirit. One of those two days was the Evening of Jazz fundraiser the school jazz band I played in would put on. The other was the multicultural fair, which without fail always managed to produce the smells of amazing food from around the world as kids would set up shop to show off their own ancestries and cultures for their classmates.

I always set out a booth for Armenia, the country my mom’s family is from. I’d have unleavened Armenian bread and honey set out for folks to take, I’d have sketched a to-scale (to the best of my mediocre abilities) a map of Armenia, and I’d do my best to not answer questions in a completely stupid manner. I’d also try to get around to see everyone else’s booths, and one year, there was a kid I had never met before with a booth for the country Azerbaijan.

Now, for a little context: Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a war over land (what else?) for six years in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and even today are enemies in every sense of the term. Think the Hatfields and the McCoys or the Capulets and the Montagues and you get the picture.

Anyways, I remarked offhandedly to this classmate of mine, “You know, if our governments had a say here, we’re supposed to hate each other.” And I’ll never forget his reaction: he chuckled, rolled his eyes, shook his head, and said, “I know, right?” Like it was the most ridiculous thing in the world—since, after all, it kind of was. And it is. It still is. Because, in the end, we are supposed to love our enemies. Because love, if it is as strong as we say it is and believe that it is, has a real chance at turning enemies into something other than enemies at least sometimes.

This is another new sermon series for the fall, and this series will take us all the way into November. And there really is a simple reason behind how this sermon series got cooked up in the first place (beyond, you know, the inspiration and movement of the Holy Spirit, me throwing darts at the wall, the consulting of sheep entrails, that sort of thing). Luke 6 contains some of the most blunt, point-blank ethical teachings of Jesus in any Gospel, but those teachings, nicknamed the Sermon on the Plain (can you guess why?), tend to be overshadowed by the magnum opus of Matthew’s Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount, which both parallels and dwarfs the Sermon on the Plain. So, we’re spending these six weeks giving some much-needed attention to a sermon that often gets short shrift, even though it contains some of the most famous one-off ethical pronouncements Jesus offers, including “love your enemies,” “if someone steals your coat, give them your shirt as well,” and “judge not, and you will not be judged.” My aim is to present all of these teachings to you in their context of an entire series of teachings, and two weeks ago, we set the scene, the backdrop for where this teaching happens: an otherwise thoroughly nondescript plain (hence the sermon’s title) where Jesus performed healing miracles on an untold number of people before He even began teaching. Last week, though, the teaching began in earnest, with what we might call in the parlance a doozy: the whole “Woe are the rich,” “Woe are the filled,” and “Woe are the hungry” bit right after the beatitudes, and the lessons don’t get any easier to swallow with this week’s instructions.

After all, this week’s passage includes the ol’ “love your enemies” bit that we all know but all refuse to follow. Or, at the very least, that we follow by coming up with a completely cockamamie definition of what constitutes ‘love,’ a definition that could only be applied to someone who was, in fact, you enemy (like, “I will love this person by shunning them in order to show them the error of their ways, because how dare they be born gay or out of wedlock?”).

But that’s not all! We aren’t just supposed to love our enemies, we are supposed to give to the people who mug us! If anyone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt as well. No way we do that today. If someone takes my coat, I hang onto my shirt, thank you very much, and we are liable to mace our assailant if we get the chance. Because that is what is realistic, right? And we live in the real world, right? We cannot always afford to be idealistic, right?

Well…no. It’s quite the opposite: in the real world, in the realistic world, in the broken and sinful world that we inhabit, we cannot afford to NOT be idealistic. Without our ideals, we run the risk of slipping into a nihilistic mentality of valuing absolutely nothing: not ourselves, not our loved ones, and certainly not God.

Which is why Jesus instructs us otherwise, and those instructions can be split into two different trains of thought, the first in verses 27-31, the second in verses 32-36. And really, I could do a sermon on each of these blocks of text, but we’ll try to tackle them together, going in reverse order.

By way of commentary on verses 32-36, I would simply quote from the Bible scholar Sharon Ringe: 
The usual pattern of repaying one favor with another simply perpetuates relationships based on calculation and mutual advantage. Such relationships represent no more than business as usual, particularly in a society (like those in which both Jesus and Luke lived) defined by systems of “patronage.” In a patronage system, a person’s status in the society is determined by those whom have to depend on that person, and by those, in turn, on whom that person must rely. Personal relationships in a patronage system are marked by calculations of debts and credits: Who owes what to whom? …If you help me, I will owe you my loyalty as well as material compensation. At best, you will have a chip you can call in for a future favor. At worst, the less powerful person becomes virtually a slave of the more powerful. 

Imagine, for a moment, a world in which you were defined not by what you did and who you were to people--a mother or father, a husband or wife, son or daughter, brother or sister--or by your profession, but by how much you owed.  Think of how embarrassing or humiliating it would be to lead off conversations not with "So what do you do?" (which can still be a loaded question in some cases) but with, "So who do you owe?"

And so much of Jesus’s teachings in Luke’s Gospel especially center around this imperative need of liberating the enslaved from their bondage—it makes sense. But I can hear the rejoinder: wouldn’t, say, “giving to everyone who asks of you” turn us into slaves because we would have nothing?

Well…yeah, you have nothing. Which means you no longer have your love for possessions, material wealth, and monetary riches to bind you down like Jacob Marley in Scrooge’s wacky dreams.

Because it isn’t just the living that can enslave us. Humans have enslaved one another for millennia, but the things that we have created likewise have enslaved us. Things like greed. Things like hatred.

And in order to be able to receive the full import and effect and impact of Jesus’s teachings, we first have to be honest with ourselves about what it is that enslaves us. The obvious answer is sin, but what sort of sin? We aren’t all equally tempted by different wrongs; some tend to creep up on us more than others. But one of those temptations that tends to be pretty universal is us wanting to do wrong to people who have wronged us, or crossed us, or have otherwise qualified themselves to be our enemies.

And before I really begin unpacking that statement, I want to nip this in the bud: Jesus advocating nonviolent remedies to violence did not make Him, or the Gospel, any less dangerous to those in power who felt threatened by Him. Nor does it make Jesus any less dangerous today. A number of pastors rail against us portraying Jesus as some sort of hippie who wanted everyone to hold hands and hit the peace pipe, presumably because they’d rather Jesus be made in their non-hippie image.

It’s an example of a strawman fallacy: the creating of something that doesn’t exist (the strawman) in order to attack it. Jesus wasn’t dangerous because He was a “peace, love, and rock n’ roll” chap or not—He was dangerous because if people actually did what He said here, if they actually all decided not to turn to violence and selfishness and greed, there would be no Roman Empire, no powerful temple aristocracy to prop up the Empire, no need for the countless ways in which those in power oppressed those not in power in order to keep on staying in power.

In other words: Jesus was dangerous because if we all actually did what He’s saying here, we wouldn’t even recognize the world, so changed it would be from its present state. And that scared an awful lot of people in His day. It still scares an awful lot of people now, probably including people who, these fears notwithstanding, otherwise would identify themselves as Christian.

To be perfectly honest and candid with you, it scares me sometimes. Because I know there is no way I can follow the instructions of Luke 6 all of the time, or even most of time on occasions. But being able to admit that humbling reality is part of that freeing process, that liberation from sin that Christ promises you and I alike. And the idea is, when we are completely free, we will be able to do all of these things, no problem…and in so doing, we will truly have become, as Jesus calls us, children of the most high.

And children of the most high know no enemies. They are like the children we have today: whose enemies are not ISIS, or Al-Qaeda, or the political party we voted against in the last election, or the church down the road whose doctrine makes us throw up in our mouths, or even that jerkweed who cut us off on the 5 without signaling. No, their enemies are their invisible friends, or the kid who won’t share their shovel with them in the sandbox. Enemies who aren’t really enemies. Jesus says we will be children of the most high…well, it stands to reason that we might just need to be a little bit more like the children of the exactly regular high folks as well—us. Like our children. Like the fellow child I came across in that dingy high school cafeteria. The kind who recognizes enemies who aren’t really your enemies, but friends. Family. Relatives. Loved ones.

That is what being children of the most high promises us.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
October 12, 2014

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