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Wed, Feb 28, 2018

Who is on your list

Duration:1 hr 11 mins 27 secs

Tonight is the third week of our Lenten series on forgiveness. We began Ash Wednesday with the parable of a Father who had two sons and quickly recognized that forgiveness is complex, never simply between an isolated individual and God. Then last week, with Psalm 51, Nadine invited us to examine ourselves, to seek the places in our own lives where we need forgiveness and to lift them up to the Lord in confession. Today we continue to engage that inner struggle, turning to some quite challenging words from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, found in the Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 5, verses 43-48. Let us hear this Word of God.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

This is only week three in our series and it seems as if we have jumped into the deep end. Love your enemies? Pray for those who persecute you? Don’t we need to practice forgiveness on some easier folks first? Maybe those we just have a grudge with or who have committed a minor slight. Seems like we could have at least waited until week six to tackle this command from our Lord (especially since I am only preaching the odd weeks in this series).

But, if we are honest, we need this instruction, right? Because we all have a list.

Yes, we all have a list of people who do not deserve forgiveness. You know, the “real” sinners. My list includes the people who murder, especially innocent children. Those who sell drugs on the street. People who abuse their spouse or their children or their pets. CEOs who get rich by taking advantage of the poor or the elderly. Those who refuse to believe the gospel. Those who resort to terror and violence to get their way. Those who intentionally exclude others based on their race or gender or sexual orientation. People who riot in the streets or who post hateful things on Facebook. People who lie, cheat, and steal. I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. And I hate to use the word “enemies” but when I know any of those people personally or they have hurt me or someone I love, it just might fit.

Yes, we all have a list. Who is on your list?

Well, my friends, I am afraid that when the Lord looks at your list and mine, he shakes his head and says, “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

Scholars who have studied the religious and wisdom literature of the Middle East far more than I, say that this is an unprecedented command. There are many versions of the command to love your neighbor, but Jesus is the only one to tell us that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

Do you think Jesus realizes this is not a reasonable request? It actually violates every inch of common sense we have. As human beings we are conditioned, it is our natural instinct, to preserve ourselves and our loved ones. When our personal safety or the safety of those we love is threatened our response is either to fight or flee, not love. Our response is dictated by how we are treated by others. Those who treat us well, we greet in the street. Those who treat us poorly, we ignore at best or fight at worst. Those who love us we love in return. Those who mistreat us, we resent at best or attack at worst. This is the way of the world and if you don’t follow along you will get trampled and run over.

So Jesus’ command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us is not responsible; it violates our common sense; and sounds ridiculous. That is exactly the point. The life of discipleship points not to the ways of the world, but the presence of the kingdom of God in our midst. Notice the reason that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us is not as a subversive strategy to make them our friends; it is not out of common concern for universal human rights; it is not even because it is God’s will for us to love our enemies (Like eat your vegetables because I told you to). No, the reason given for loving our enemies is so that we may be children of God, that we may become ones who share God’s nature. Loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us may serve no practical purpose at all and may hardly be prudent, but it is how God acts in the world. Yes, that is how God acts toward us who were his enemies because of our sin, and still he sent Christ to redeem the world. We love our enemies not because it benefits us, but because we are to reflect God’s unconditional love for the world.

Can we really do that? Church historian Glenn Hinson suggests that often the way to begin to love our enemies, indeed the only way, is to pray for them. But he confesses this is not easy work. In fact, he says “[the psalms which invoke judgment, calamity, or curses, upon one's enemies] have a job to do before I get to the point that I can pray for my enemies. I’ll have to release some anger first and let God do something with it that I can’t.”

My friends, forgiveness is not a once and done, momentary event. Just like love is a life-long orientation of faithfulness and care for another, so is forgiveness. And the first step in the journey of forgiveness and love of our enemies might just be admitting to God how angry we are and how much pain we carry. The more we hold onto that anger and pain, the more like our enemies we become. But if we begin to honestly share that anger and pain with God, we might find there is a bit of room for the Spirit to start working on us.

So, I ask you to consider who is on your list. Yes, who is on your list of sinners and enemies? Do not throw that list away. As the Spirit gives you the ability, turn your list of sinners into a prayer list so that with grace and patience and courage others might see and know that you are a child of your Father in heaven.

Thanks be to God. Amen and Amen.

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