Surprised by Love
First Reading Genesis 45:3-11, 15
Psalm Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42
Second Reading 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50
Gospel Luke 6:27-38
“Commit your way to the Lord and put your trust in him, *and he will bring it to pass.”
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen
We have been together as priest and parish long enough now that we might tell each other a story we have told in the past. I hope if you hear one of my jokes a second time, you will laugh again, or perhaps for the first time. But some stories are told again because they so describe our shared experience. Some stories paint a picture that so poignantly guide us. Today I offer, again, such a story.
Akiva, an old rabbi who lived just outside the 2nd-century city of Capernaum, had been to the village to gather some supplies and was walking back to his home. Late in the evening and deep in thought, he came to a fork in the road and went to the right rather than taking the path to the left which would lead him home. Suddenly a voice came through the darkness, “Who are you and why are you here?” Rousing his senses the rabbi realized he was in unfamiliar territory. Straining to see through the darkness he recognized the Roman fortress - military barracks - and slowly realized the questions were coming from the sentry on duty, “Who are you and why are you here?”
Being a rabbi and a scholar he answered the question with a question. “Young man, how much do they pay you to stand guard and ask those questions of all who approach?” Rather than being defensive, the guard could see he was dealing with a man of the cloth - not an intruder. He answered, “4 drachmas a week ($100).” The rabbi replied immediately, “I will double your pay if you come with me, stand at the door of my home, and ask me those same two questions each morning as I leave for the day.” ... “Who are you and why are you here?”
The journey of faith can be challenging, even confusing. In the season of Epiphany, we are paying particular attention to all the ways God is made manifest among us, and how we are called to respond. Epiphany starts off obviously enough, with the Wise Men recognizing the divinity of Christ. Other signs also seem fairly clear, such as the divine presence and proclamation at Jesus’ baptism, and the miracle of water to wine at the wedding in Cana. Then we move to Jesus’ revelation of the Messiah’s mission, “to bring good news to the poor ... to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This seems consistent with the gospel, but what does that have to do with us? Or how about when the professional fishermen work tirelessly through the night to catch fish without success, then the son of a handyman and itinerant preacher tells them, drop the nets over there ... and they catch the biggest haul of fish they have ever caught.
On one hand, looking back and from a distance, we can confirm the divine presence in all of these scriptures. On the other hand, if we were present then, possibly even following Jesus through each of these encounters, imagine the confusion. Today’s gospel continues to emphasize the divine presence in our lives, but in ways that are hard to recognize, and even harder to practice.
Last week Jesus gives us a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven in blessings and woes. In asserting the value and care of the poor, weak, and suffering, we get an explanatory picture of God’s compassion, mercy, and abundant love. Today Jesus’ message is prescriptive. If you want to receive those blessings mentioned, here is what you are to do. Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you. Turn the other cheek. Give to those in need, and if someone steals from you, give them a little more.
Queue the dropped jaws and blank stares. This is very hard to hear. All of these behaviors stand in the face of our human tendencies. We say, “If you hate me, I’ll hate you back; if you hit me, I’ll hit you harder; if you steal from me, you will be punished to the fullest extent of the law.”
Jesus is changing the ground rules. It is not a call to passivity, but a call to pursue divine action. Jesus is revealing the nature of God. God is merciful. God is radically generous, relentlessly giving, constantly blessing. As children of the Most High, we are to act likewise. Don’t live the way everybody else lives, live God’s way. Boiled down, Jesus is telling us to, like God, always will the good of others.
Jesus is describing the power to turn things around with an unexpected response of love. In Genesis, Joseph has every reason to hate his brothers for selling him into slavery and telling their father he is dead. Joseph shows his wisdom, compassion, and insight into God’s plan. He interprets the meaning of their mutual history, and assures them that God was always present. God continued to act in Joseph’s adversity to preserve life and fulfill divine promises, in ways difficult to understand or reconcile. Only after Joseph brought God’s purpose and love into focus could he reconcile with his brothers, and they hugged and kissed and wept and talked with one another.
God’s love is stronger than any hate humanity can muster. Humanity seems to operate under an ethic of reciprocity. Good for good, and bad for bad. But God is calling us to break the cycle of retribution. Two wrongs do not make a right. Jesus clearly calls us to do to others as we would have them do to us. Always respond and repay with love and compassion. This is the power God shares with us to transform others and the world. This is the power of love.
Professional golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez tells a story of when he was twelve, and his father caught a neighbor stealing bananas from a tree in their back yard. Having caught the thief red handed, the elder Rodriguez tells Chi Chi, “Go get my machete.” Chi Chi does as he is told, and his father cuts the bunch of bananas in half. He gave them to his neighbor, and said, “Next time you need something from my house, come to my front door.”
Jesus doesn’t call us to give until it hurts. Jesus instructs us to go further, and give until it feels good. But what if we fail at all of the above? God loves us anyway. This should motivate us to keep trying, and try harder. Do not keep score. Do not judge others, or even ourselves. We will find we are all lacking. Yet we are being transformed in our successes and our failures. God’s grace and love bestowed on us changes us, and is greater than our sin, our best intentions, or even our hard work.
Who are we and why are we here? Our mission in the world is to restore all people, including ourselves, to unity with God and each other in Christ. Why are we here in church this Sunday morning? We are here to give thanks and praise to God. We are also in community to practice what Jesus preaches. We come together for rest, refreshment and to refuel. But our community and worship is not merely a weigh station. We are challenged to come to God’s table, not only for solace, but for strength. As we go out into the world, is what we are doing working? Does it reflect what God would have us do?
How many of us awoke this morning hoping we would be uncomfortably challenged? I hope scripture tells me to love my enemies. Akiva hoped to be challenged every day. The liturgical season of epiphany is wrapping up, but our desire to seek and find and experience the living God among us does not wind down.
We are called to constant discernment in every situation to seek and recognize God acting in the world. One thing we know about God is that God will constantly surprise us, and God’s surprises are life-giving. Perhaps we can surprise the world as well. Perhaps in enter every encounter with family, friends, church, politics, or even enemies, we could surprise the world with love, and treat others as we would have them treat us. Amen.