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Sunday, February 24, 2019

Curses and Blessings in the Gospel

Luke 6:27-38
I am going to begin this morning by asking you to do something.
I would like you to move. Change seats. I want you please to get up right now, all of you, and go to a different place in the sanctuary, perhaps to a place you’ve never sat before, and sit in that new place. If you usually sit in the back, why not give sitting in the front a try? If you normally sit on this side, why not try that side? I’d like you to make a significant change in where you are sitting. I’ll wait while you do it.
            How do you feel now? Is it weird? You have a whole new view of things if you made a big change. I wonder if your new seat will change your perspective on anything?
For those of you new to sitting on this side, now you know this is really my better side. Those of you on this side, well, you may want to sit on that side next week.
            Was it difficult for you to change seats? Is it uncomfortable in some way to sit in a new place? Well Friends, if you’re feeling a little uncomfortable right now, my best advice to you is this: get used to it!
Because, the thing is, we are disciples of Jesus Christ, and Jesus is always asking us to do something new. Jesus is always inviting us to do something daring. Jesus is always drawing us into uncomfortable places, changing our point of view, and asking the seeming impossible- (like, really, change seats in church?) - because believe it or not, the new place Jesus leads us to is where we need to be, it’s where we’ll grow our best, and it is where Jesus needs us to be, for his sake and for the sake of the kingdom of God.
            I’m not going to stand here and lie to you. While “Jesus loves us, this we know, for the Bible tells us so”, that doesn’t mean Jesus is all about making us all comfy and cozy in our lives of faith and discipleship.
Remember the invitation Jesus made to those who want to follow him? “you must pick up your cross and follow me”. Nothing comforting in that!
            Today’s text reminds us that Jesus came to draw us all into a new life marked by love, forgiveness, generosity, justice, and mercy. That’s good news, right?
The struggle is, that as this Gospel text indicates, Jesus means for us to live out these qualities in our lives as ways of being that are always moving us outward – to new horizons – new ways of living in relationship with our neighbor and with God. That’s what discipleship means.
This grace, mercy, love and forgiveness all sound great when they are directed toward us and toward those we love and care about. We want and need all those things in our lives.
We know we are broken people and we yearn for the healing that Jesus brings. Yet Jesus came to deliver this mandate that to follow him, we need to direct those same things toward people that our culture and our egos tell us are the last people we should want to benefit from them: like, those who hurt us; those we those who hate us; those curse and abuse us. Yet, when we do this, the radical love of Jesus is evident in our lives; it changes our lives, our relationships, and our world.
            Today’s gospel lesson is a continuation of the one we heard last week, the so-called Sermon on the Plain.
In a reversal of all we have come to expect in life, Jesus gave the crowd some good news/bad news. To the poor, the hungry, and the mourning Jesus delivered the good news that they would be well off in the kingdom of God; and then to the rich, he gave the bad news that they wouldn’t fare so well if they continued to trust in worldly riches rather than in God, especially when they valued and accumulated those things at the expense of the poor.
            As Luke’ Gospel continues into today’s passage, Jesus invites his followers to demonstrate radical love, blessing, forgiveness, generosity, and trust. That shouldn’t be too difficult, should it? Except the thing is, Jesus tells his disciples that the recipients of all that benevolence can’t just be the people we love, or like, or even just tolerate, nor can our good intentions be a reciprocal act.
            Jesus says instead, that we need to shower these radical gifts of mercy and generosity even on our enemies. We’re supposed to love on those we don’t like, don’t know, and don’t really care to know.
            You think changing seats in church is challenging and uncomfortable?
Picture your worst enemy or a person who has created havoc and pain for you or others you care about. Picture a person who has slandered or cursed you or taken from you what is rightfully yours. Picture a person or group that have cost you something you treasure. Now, picture yourself loving that person, forgiving them, and bestowing kindness and mercy on them in their hour of need.
That is how Jesus is telling us we should live:
But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. That’s not all.
If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.
And finally, the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do to you.
How difficult do you find these words?
To be honest, I find them scorchingly difficult to hear. Because the core of this teaching centers on forgiveness and sometimes forgiveness can be so hard to give. This is not simply forgiving your child when they have lied to you or forgiving your partner when they didn’t take the trash out like they were supposed to. I think you know that. Jesus tells us we need to forgive our enemies for the bigger-badder things they have done that hurt us.
The thing is, sometimes it is so much more justifiable and righteous to hold on to grudges and withhold forgiveness from someone who has caused me or someone I love, pain.
There are people I’ve never even met that I have a hard time loving. I have always said that there is no one I hate – I taught my children not even to use that word in reference to another person – but I confess that in an era of toxic division and polarization in our world, I experience grave dislike toward some people. Seeing the pain and destruction of lives caused by the actions of other people, I get angry.  There are people whose words and actions I find so heinous or disagreeable, that I am brought to the point of feeling hatred.
Jesus seems to be asking something that is not only challenging, but in many ways impossible. It’s too radical. It’s too hard.
But then, I look at these words again and I realize that Jesus isn’t just demanding an unachievable standard, but Jesus is showing us the way. Jesus describes his own life, passion and death.
With the gift of knowing the full story of Jesus’ radical love as he lived it himself, we gain a new perspective of what radical love, mercy, forgiveness, generosity and grace look like. Jesus invites us not only to live out this radical love, but to trust and depend on him to lead the way. And Jesus delivers.
Throughout his life, but most especially in his passion and death, Jesus exemplified radical love and forgiveness, mercy and grace.
He spent time with and even ate with tax collectors and sinners; he received water from and gave forgiveness to the woman at the well; he healed and invited outsiders in to the party; through his parables he described the most extraordinary examples of unjustified mercy and generosity that is given to the most unlikely of characters.
He heals one of his arresting soldiers when his ear is cut off, and asks God to forgive his torturers, declaring that they do not know what they are doing.
During his passion and even at the cross, Jesus’ forgiveness and promise bring restoration to a common criminal.
Finally, Jesus forgives us and promises us life everlasting despite our sinfulness, despite our inablity to live out this command, and despite our many foibles and failures.
Instead of giving us what we deserve, Jesus gives us unmerited grace. In his unending generosity, Jesus invites each and every one of us to the table where we are fed and nourished and strengthened and given new perspective and grace.
With these words, Jesus challenges us to grow in living our lives in harmony with God’s desire of restored relationships based on mercy and harmony. What will our answer be?
Making the changes in our lives that Jesus invites today doesn’t happen overnight. We take one step, and then another. But, I wonder how many of you will go back to sitting in your usual seats next week?
I hope that little by little you will challenge yourselves to grow; to become the people God is calling you to be, willing to take on new behaviors and to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. The first of the steps we will need to take is to embrace love.