February 24, 2019
This week, Jesus continues with his sermon on the plain. Like last week, Jesus preaches a tough
sermon that is hard to hear. It is counter-cultural. It is radical. And we all fall short of the ideals of the Kingdom that Jesus preaches in his sermon today.
Before I get too far in my own sermon (on Jesus’ sermon - really Revised Common Lectionary?), I need to talk about how this passage has been and continues to be misused. Often, Jesus’ words are turned into weapons against people who have experienced trauma. It goes something like this, “If you were a good Christian, you’d just forgive them, just turn the other cheek, and move on. That’s what Jesus calls you to do” It has been used to keep women in abusive relationships, it’s your job to not only forgive, but to turn the other cheek when he hits you. As a pastor and as a woman, that attitude is so far from the Christ I have come to know.
Even more, Jesus’ words are often used by people in positions of power to keep people in their “proper place.” Today, we’re commemorating black history month. During the period of slavery, white Christian ministers often turned to this passage to both justify slavery and to tell slaves to forgive the abuses of their masters. Still today, when we look at race relations in this country, too often, it is white folks who tell our siblings of color that it’s just their job to forgive when we mess up or when we continue (intentionally and unintentionally) the violence and harm that folks live with every day with our words and actions.
Whether in interpersonal relationships or larger societal relationships, too often it is the one causing the harm that demands forgiveness from those that they are harming - which then gives the space for harm to continue to be perpetrated. It lets me off the hook without requiring true repentance from me. I don’t want to be held accountable for my actions; I just want forgiveness so I (as the one who caused harm) can move on. We’re keen on forgiveness when it suits us. Think about it: how many of us have siblings? Whether I hurt my brother or the other way around, as kids, it often played out this way. One of us would hurt the other (with words or actions), then immediately realizing what we did, we’d ask for forgiveness. Not so much because we were “actually sorry,” but because we didn’t want the other to go tell Mom and Dad and we didn’t want to get into actual trouble. And this plays out in similar ways with more serious things than sibling spats. If I say something that is harmful to a person of color, and I immediately demand forgiveness, I’m not forced to look honestly at myself and how racism has been part of my life. I can just go on like it never happened, which leaves the door open for that to continue. If an abuser harms their partner, and demands immediate forgiveness (so they won’t lose them, or won’t be reported to police, etc.), they’re not actually forced to change and look at what fuels their abusive tendencies. Cycles of violence can continue.
When we look at the Gospel of Luke, and Jesus’ intention to bring good news to the poor and who comes to lift up the lowly, I have to ask “what kind of “good news” is that? I don’t want any part of a proclamation of the “good news” that allows and in fact encourages the cycles of violence to continue. I cannot believe that this is what Jesus intended with his words to us today. We’ve been talking about how, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus announces the coming of a new kingdom in this world here and now. The Kingdom of God is a kingdom that turns this world upside down, bringing down the powerful and lifting up the lowly and releasing those held under the bonds of oppression. The Kingdom of God brings God’s ways into reality here and now. God’s ways break the cycles of human violence. God’s way is a way of life. Even more, God’s way is a way of resurrection - bringing life where we expect to find death.
Two things helped me as I was wrestling with this text this week. First, it was pointed out to me that by saying “love your enemies,” Jesus recognizes the reality of this world as it is - there are enemies in this world (as uncomfortable as it is to say that). There are real enemies: there are people that are opposed to us, to our interests, to our wellbeing. There are imagined enemies: those that we “think” or perceive to be against us - whether they actually are or not. Either way, our enemies are those whom we are expected to hate and to withhold love. Acknowledging that there are enemies gives us the space to be able to name behaviors as problematic and harmful. Loving our enemies challenges us to see the neighbor and the stranger (even those we see as enemies) as beloved children of God - and to see any harmful behavior as part of their own brokenness. Sometimes loving our enemies requires holding them accountable for behaviors that are against the Kingdom - so that they too can be invited into the vision of the Kingdom. Sometimes loving our enemies is walking away without judgment, without seeking revenge. Sometimes loving our enemies is about seeking greater understanding and deeper relationship. Whatever the action is, the goal is that, through love, our enemies (which are part of our current reality) don’t remain our enemies, but become our friends.
Secondly, the word for forgiveness used in this week’s text means “release.” Forgiveness is not about pretending that the harm never occurred. It is not about excusing behavior that causes harm. We have to acknowledge the harm before forgiveness can happen. However, it is about “releasing” anger, and “releasing” our desire for revenge as a response to the harm done for us.
I’ll be honest with you. I’m far from perfect in this. We’ve been so conditioned to expect this for that. In our world as it is, there is an expectation of violence in return for violence, hate in return for hate, love only in return for love. We’ve been so conditioned to push away anyone that we think of as “enemy.” But here’s the problem: violence in return for violence usually only escalates violence. Hate in return for hate only spreads hate. When I’m harmed, all too often, my first reaction is to hurt back. Too often, I give with the expectation of something else in return. Too often, the ways of the world outweighs the ways of the Kingdom of God. I’ll be honest with you, there are relationships in my life that are so broken that, as long as things are as they are, the relationship will never be reconciled. Over time, I’ve forgiven - I’ve released my anger and desire to respond with hate and anger. But I’m not reconciled to them.
Jesus’ sermon today is addressed to his disciples. Jesus knows that, in this world as it is, Jesus’ proclamation about this Kingdom of God will lead to his own death. It isn’t a prescription for behavior but rather a description of the values of the Kingdom. Jesus knows that, in this world as it is, Jesus’ own disciples will go to their own deaths because they chose to follow Jesus and to be part of the breaking in of the Kingdom.
Today’s sermon from Jesus invites them to choose the ways of the Kingdom of God instead of the Kingdom of this world. These words help the disciples to imagine what is possible when we choose the ways of forgiveness over the ways of retaliation, the ways of love over the ways of hate, the ways of life over the ways of death. Karoline Lewis puts it this way: “I believe that these words of Jesus are but a vision for what is possible, for what should be were we to have Jesus’ sermon at Nazareth in mind.” Instead of allowing the cycles of violence to continue, it is a vision where reconciliation and resurrection are possible in this world as it is. It is a vision where humanity can finally be in right relationship with each other - not by excusing violence - but by breaking the cycles of violence and eliminating violence, oppression, poverty - and anything else that serves as barriers between us and are neighbor - once and for all.
Jesus describes the values of the Kingdom, knowing full-well that we will fall short of them. Yet by describing what this world could and should be like, we are wooed into that vision. I saw a meme on Facebook that, for me, summed up the Jesus’ vision today quite well, “if we could spread love as quickly as we spread hate and negativity, what an amazing world we would live in….” “If we could spread love as quickly as we spread hate and negativity, what an amazing world we would live in.” Who wouldn’t want to be part of that? When we can envision the Kingdom, we can better see the Kingdom whenever and wherever we see the values of forgiveness, love, and mercy all around us. When we are wooed into that vision of the Kingdom, our lives and our values begin to be shaped by that Kingdom - so that we too participate in the kingdom as we live out the kind of forgiveness, love, and mercy that we have received as a free gift from God as those already enfolded into the Kingdom of God.