Sermon on Luke 6 – 2 pieces of Good News. 1) We don’t have to be perfect in loving our enemies. It’s a gradual process of maturing in our faith and our ability to forgive. 2) Love can be tough love and subversive love that transforms evil actions and systems.
Last week, we talked about Luke’s beatitudes.
Blessed are the poor and woe to the rich.
And I talked about how Luke believed that the end of the world was near, and so of course, blessed are the poor, because soon, their suffering will be over.
And of course, woe to the rich, because when Jesus comes back, their riches won’t matter anymore.
But the woe will only be temporary, because Jesus will be back, and everyone will be unified and happy and there will be no more mourning or sadness.
Of course, that didn’t happen.
Jesus didn’t come back.
Not the way Luke thought.
And so Christians had to shift what they believed.
They had to begin to think about US as the Christ – they had to think about US as the ones to bring the Good News to the world and bring about the radical changes Jesus preached.
This week, we continue in the Gospel of Luke, and Jesus preaches this time to love your enemies.
…Which might be easier if we believed the world was ending soon.
I can love someone difficult for a couple of hours. Maybe even a day or two.
I can push myself to be cordial and even kind if I know I don’t have to do it for long.
Unfortunately, this text challenges us to go beyond that.
Jesus even says – this is going to be difficult.
But it may not be as difficult as we think.
There are two pieces of good news in this text.
First – Luke doesn’t tell us we have to be perfect in loving our enemies. In Matthew’s version of this text, it says “Be perfect as God is perfect.” Luke doesn’t ask us to do that. Luke tells us to be merciful.
Even Matthew’s word for perfect isn’t really perfect, it’s more a sense of maturity.
In other words, we don’t have to be 100% loving or giving right away.
This is a process.
It will take time.
Think about all of the enemies we’ve come to love as a nation over time.
We used to be at war with England. Now they’re good friends.
We used to be at war with Germany. Now they’re our allies.
With time, we can learn to love and forgive one another.
I’ll never forget the time in Micronesia when I sat down for a meal with Japanese volunteers and elderly residents of the island who had lived when the island was brutally taken over and occupied. Those elders spoke Japanese, because the Japanese army had insisted they not speak their native language, only Japanese.
The stories they told were horrific. And yet in 2003, they were sitting together, sharing a meal and laughing and appreciating that they could communicate with one another.
They even shared sakau together, a drink that on the island symbolizes reconciliation.
Some of us hold silly grudges for decades, and yet here were elders who had been occupied and hurt and had legitimate reason to hate, and yet were choosing to forgive.
It is possible.
And time makes it easier.
So that’s the first piece of Good News. With time, forgiveness becomes easier, and God doesn’t expect us to be perfect at loving right away. God gives us time to mature in our abilities, giving us grace along the way..
The second piece of Good News is that love doesn’t have to be passive and it doesn’t mean we have to be a doormat that everyone else steps on.
Sometimes, loving our enemies means giving them a dose of tough love.
There’s a secret message in this text, one that saints like Maritn Luther King Jr. and scholars like Walter Wink would later pick up on.
And it’s this message of tough love.
For Jesus, loving enemies was not a passive, love in your heart.
It was an active love that also called us to resist evil actions and evil systems, recognizing that evildoers are often unaware of the terrible pain they are causing.
Here’s what I mean.
When Jesus says “turn the other cheek,” he doesn’t just mean “let people who are hurting you hurt you more.”
Matthew says it this way, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”
Think about it. Most people are right handed. In order to hit someone on the right cheek, you have to backhand them.
That’s what people with power did to slaves or people with less power.
Turning the other cheek, the left cheek, is another way of saying, treat me like a full human being.
If you’re going to hit me, know that I stand in the fullness of my humanity, and you better hit me like an equal.
Likewise, the second text is not just about giving someone everything you have.
Although it’s a nice sentiment – I love the idea of being even more generous to people and giving them even more than what they ask for.
But there’s more to this story.
Most people at the time of Jesus wore two pieces of clothing.
An inner garment, which was like a loose-fitting tshirt. It was made of linen or cotton or soft wool.
Men wearing only this inner garment were said to be naked.
Nothing was worn under the inner tunic.
It was the undergarment itself.
So being seen in this under tunic would be like being seen in your underwear.
At the time of Jesus, local governors were overtaxing the local working class to a ridiculous degree, taking so much of their earnings that they could barely eek out a subsistence living.
When farmers or fishermen couldn’t pay the taxes on the land they were working or boats they were leasing for their work, they would be brought before the court to pay their debts.
The courts were allowed to take everything from them, even their outer coat.
Which would have been humiliating.
What Jesus is telling them is that if predatory lenders take you to court and ask for everything, including your outer tunic, give them your inner tunic as well. The shirt off your back.
Which…. would leave someone completely naked.
Not only would this make a scene, but it would also shame the court.
What type of institution would leave its people completely naked?
It’s a way to turn the humiliation of the person back on the institution humiliating them.
All this is to say that sometimes, loving our enemies is not only about holding them in prayer or blessing them.
Another way to love them is to help them grow as people.
To help them recognize the humanity of the people they are hurting.
By demonstrating our own self-worth or the inherent value of the people our enemies are hurting, there is the potential for real transformation.
This is the core of non-violent direction action as taught and practiced not only by Jesus, but later by saints like Mohatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and others.
It was not without pain.
The person who turns the other cheek is hit twice, and may end up with a worse punishment for standing up to someone with more power.
The person who disrobes in the courthouse is doubly humiliated and possibly jailed for humiliating the court.
But for them and for the contemporary followers of Jesus’ teachings, the suffering borne by nonviolent direct action was a moral means they could use to awaken the conscience of their adversaries as well as the conscience of a wider passive public.
As Dr. King said, “When a police dog buried his fangs in the ankle of a small child in Birmingham, he buried his fangs in the ankle of every American.”
Many people saw that child and recognized it was an innocent human child, not a soldier or a boogey man. A child. And it changed the way they understood racism and the civil rights move
This unique way of loving our enemies also transforms us if we choose to adopt it.
When we use the tools of retaliation and hatred – they only fuel more pain in our spirits.
When we put love at the center and act from the foundation that we ourselves are worthy of love, we have the power to affect positive change without extinguishing our inner light in the process.
I remember that when I was in California, one of the things that convinced the judges there to make same-sex marriage legal were all the couples that came to the court house every day and told their personal stories to the justices and to anyone else who would listen.
Those personal, human stories, helped change a system.
On a smaller scale, in our personal relationships, sometimes, sharing our pain and our experiences can make a difference.
Being vulnerable and loving ourselves and insisting on our humanity before God – sometimes that makes an impact.
Sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes, there are “enemies” or maybe not even “enemies” but people who hurt us, people who are simply so unsafe or so entrenched in their mental illness or destructive habits that even us sharing how much they hurt us isn’t going to have an impact.
They need a bigger intervention.
And in most cases, professional medical or psychological intervention we can’t provide.
Loving them is particularly hard, because it sometimes means loving them from a safe distance or acknowledging that it’s not our life or our love or our story that’s going to transform their lives.
So who in our life COULD we transform?
Is there a law or policy that is unjustly hurting children or families?
Is there a political rival who doesn’t see your perspective yet that you might be able to find common ground with by sharing your own experience?
If you’re being hurt, either by a person or by a system, and direct communication hasn’t worked, what creative and loving way might you bring their attention to your situation?
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not something that will happen overnight.
Jesus didn’t come back right away either.
He’s gradually, slowly, working through us to transform the world.
As Dr. King famously said so often, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
May we bend with it, knowing Jesus accompanies us on our journey.