A sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, February 19, 2017
St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
This is the fourth week that the Gospel in our lectionary is from the fifth chapter of Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount. Next week is the last Sunday before Lent, so this is the end of this series, even though the Sermon on the Mount continues for two more chapters. Jesus has been teaching us, just as he taught his disciples and the crowds who followed him. They followed him not only to learn about what he might teach, but because in encountering Jesus, people were healed. That’s sort of an odd thing. There is no doubt that Jesus was a healer and he cast out demons. If you approach the documents that we have with an historical eye, it is more sure that he was known for his exorcisms and healings than anything about his teaching. Yet when we get an accurate picture of him, he wasn’t a magician and did nothing particularly showy. Despite the crowds, what we know of Jesus was how plain and ordinary he was. His healing and his teaching were the same thing: moving people from the self-absorption of fear and pain to the honesty of healthy life in God.
What Jesus presents is simple, anyone can do it—you don’t have to be smart, well-educated, or a religious superhero. However, it is a challenge to be honest in your life, and honesty requires courage, because there are real-world consequences for being honest in a world dominated by fear, selfishness, and self-serving dishonesty.
Some people think that the things that Jesus says in today’s Gospel are unrealistic or even soft-headed. But let’s look. This eye-for-an-eye thing was about holding to proportionality in pursuing justice: if a person caused you loss or injury, you weren’t entitled to have your posse go out and kill them and their whole family and take everything that they had. It was an eye for an eye, not nuclear war for an insult. But Jesus knows his customers. People rationalize and lie to themselves and others about how badly they have been treated and how terrible the others are. So, if you think you are wronged, accept it, live generously. Accept even a real wrong to your own interest, for the sake of truthfulness and justice in society. This is not about coddling wrong; it’s about stepping away from self-justification of entitlement to personal comfort. Even when we must stand up for justice, it is not for our own advantage or comfort that we stand, but for the sake of those who are harmed by the contemptuous and violent. The fierceness of compassion is far different from the rage of self-defense and selfish rancor.
So when Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” isn’t that impossible? I mean aren’t we going to be upset if people do bad things to us and our loved ones? If love were about feeling good, it would be impossible. But what Jesus has to say is not about making you, or anyone else in our country, feel good. We tend to think of love as some sort of positive feeling—nice disposition toward someone else, or some group of people—or kittens. But love, as Jesus teaches, is a disposition of the will—a choice—for the good of someone else. Christian love is not desire, or even friendship, but concern and action for the good of others.
Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” He does not say, do everything they want, or pander to their cruel whims. Rather, we should look for their ultimate good, for their healing and health. If you are taking care of a cranky and spoiled child, it is not loving to let them run into a busy street or hurt their little sister or brother. Loving another means looking out for that other person’s well-being, not their whims or what they seem to think they want. Pray for your enemies, for their well-being, for them to be guided to just actions—even it is in spite of themselves. It sometimes means that you have to stand up to a person who is destroying their life or the lives of others. Sometimes it costs popularity for not being as “nice” as some expect or for failing to join in the ridicule and nastiness toward a person who is clearly troubled and a problem.
Does it require courage to follow Jesus teachings in the Sermon on the Mount? Yes. Is it too hard for ordinary Christians? No. Healthy Christians know to seek the good of others before self. They also are honest about their own fears and their own selfishness, and they seek to repent and believe the Gospel daily. It is the pretense of acting like we are better than others, or the justification of selfishness and self-interested manipulation of the world around us that is unacceptable.
Jesus doesn’t say that life in the real world is easy. He just doesn’t pity us, rather he loves us and looks for our good.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
We are blessed and we are healed by Jesus’ love for us and the courage of his honesty. We are called to be Christians in this world, in this country, at this time.
Let us pray once again our collect for today:
O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen