I am going to tell you two stories that illustrate practical application of today’s scripture passages. I’ve shared them a few years ago.
Before becoming an Episcopalian, back in the 1970’s, I attended a large evangelical church in State College, Pennsylvania. A lovely elderly couple who moved there from Russia became members of our church. The woman told a story one evening at a bible study I was leading, that I will never forget.
She was a young girl, living on a farm with her family. The farm had become known as the place where Christians could gather to worship, do bible study, and pray, because the churches in the village had been closed down by the Russian government. The government was cracking down on these home churches, tearing down or burning their homes. One day soldiers arrived and told them they were going to tear down their barn and home, so they had better take out of the house anything they wanted to save. The soldiers started on the barn, first releasing all of their farm animals.
The family quickly gathered up the food in the house and took it outside. They started a fire and began cooking. When the soldiers came back from the barn later to begin on the house, the father of the home said to the soldiers, “Please come and eat—we have prepared a meal for you. You must be very hungry after all the hard work you have been doing.”
The soldiers stood there silently, not knowing what to say. Some began to weep. Finally, they sat down and ate with the family as their guests, and afterward went back and rebuilt the barn.
Unbelievable love and forgiveness that was transformative.
The second story comes from my dear friend Bishop Mark Dyer, about whom I’ve told you on several occasions. Mark had been a Catholic Benedictine monk prior to becoming an Episcopal priest and then ultimately a bishop. His monastery was very active in caring for the poor in the community.
As it turned out the local government decided to tear down a low-income housing development to replace it with a shopping center, citing that it would provide jobs and be good for the economy. They had made no provision for the poor who lived there. The monks attended town meetings and tried to stop this action, but to no avail. On the day the destruction was to begin all of the monks showed up and hooked arms, forming a barricade on the property so that the work could not be done.
The monks staged a sit-in and would not move, regardless of the entreaty of government officials and the police. So, they were hauled off to jail where they stayed for a few weeks.
Unbelievable love and generosity for the poor and needy that ultimately led to an equitable community response.
Both the Russian family and the Benedictine monks apparently took very seriously today’s difficult scriptures and others that informed their call as faithful followers of Jesus. None of this makes any sense whatsoever without allowing the gift of God’s all powerful, redeeming Love to first transform us.
As the collect for today reads:
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.
If you take this Collect seriously, it is absolutely chilling—accounted dead before God if one cannot demonstrate “God love.” But, it is only by this most amazing gift, delivered by the Holy Spirit, that we can hope to overcome our preprogrammed response to fight or flee, or show revenge, and courageously bear witness to the God we serve.
But isn’t it possible to horribly twist this sort of logic? Isn’t it conceivable that we put ourselves directly in harm’s way and risk embarrassment, impoverishment, injury, or death? Isn’t it quite possible that we could become the doormats of the world, be considered weak and ineffective in our promulgation of the gospel?
Yes, of course all those things are possible, maybe even probable; but that is exactly the risk our God took in sending Jesus for us. That is exactly what Jesus did when he allowed himself to be beaten, falsely accused, and crucified. And if we are really doing our part as his followers, at times we, too, will feel as if we are being “crucified.” I personally never realized how true this can be until after I became a priest. This passage from Luke chapter 6 has, over the years, helped me at times to not want to take off my collar give up the priesthood.
We have the gift of access to relationship with a God who desires that relationship with us so much that no price was too great to pay. We are given the opportunity to bask in the glow of a love so powerful, that even death or evil cannot contain it. Let’s face it; this is not an easy reading today. Likewise, it gives us no wiggle room to do nothing, because Jesus is actually speaking about our actions on behalf of us, in our own self-interest; because if we get it and obey it, we ultimately are beneficiaries of God’s grace and power.
And yet, our agency, our defense, our protection is not for ourselves, but for the sake of others. If we are to follow Jesus’ path, we are to use our personal power, influence, reputation, gifts, and wealth on behalf of those who have no power, influence, wealth, or reputation. Being “perfect” is treating the “evil and the good” and “the righteous and the unrighteous” as God treats them, providing them with the same opportunity to live as everyone else. Our witness is not true and authentic if we portray to the world actions that preserve only ourselves and our self interest. Our witness is to be given in actions that show our desire to see that all know the benefits of the love of God.
This is difficult, because it forces us to move ourselves out of the center of the relationship; our center is to be focused on another. We are asked to submit to the love of God so that love can show us and others the way. That love is the way that we are ultimately made safe. We are only ever truly safe in the love of God and doing God’s will.
Many questions might be forming and noisily calling for attention and answers, but the specific questions and situations have already been answered in the life and witness of Jesus the Christ. We speak the truth that God loves all people, that retribution is not the way to show God’s justice. When we are out there alone as Jesus was, in a community governed by power that seeks to preserve its hold on others, we are subject to the persecution, betrayal, and a kind of death to our emotional, spiritual, and even our physical health that might feel like the death that Jesus endured.
But we, as followers of Jesus, can work to create systems and communities where we will not be out there alone. We have the benefit of the gospel and the knowledge of God’s overwhelming grace and
love that is able to sustain and protect us, and even overcome the power of evil, and its death dealing results. We have been given the faith and the hope that our forgiveness and unmerited love, given to us by God’s Holy Spirit, will transform those who sin against us.
We have the chance to work to nurture children and young adults to understand that their well-being is only secure in the securing of the well-being of all. We are the people to whom God is looking to make the effort to see that all are treated even as God treats all. And some days it is extremely difficult, especially in the midst of the personal pain that might unjustly be inflicted on us. Make no mistake about it: Evil deeds and words always lead to death—death to another’s spirit, health, and overall wellbeing. Death to a family, a faith community, a city, a nation. Not to mention what it does to our own souls.
However, and here is the hard part, God calls us to rise above evil done to us, and continue to love and forgive, and pray for the other. Why? Because that is exactly what Jesus did for all of us, yesterday, today, and forever! That is what resurrection is about—overcoming evil with the very spirit of God operating in and through us, giving life! A kind of life that can’t be killed! That is what showing the love of God is about—a love so powerful that we do not submit to evil deeds and rhetoric about us.
So, are we to just meekly submit to the persecution of this world and our enemies like wimpy doormats? To borrow a phrase from the Apostle Paul, “By no means!” Rather, we show our enemies that the love of God is stronger and more powerful than their evil deeds. And when it comes to generosity for those in need, we are to be those people who do not seek to simply protect what is their own, but who seek to protect others, as if it was Jesus himself doing it.
A profound lack of self-interest and self-protection is rooted in the desire of a community of believers to protect one another, to make sure that all people in all communities, both enemies and friends, have access to the means of life and knowing the benefit of God’s sacrificial and live-giving love. In other words, we are to operate, not in loveless power, but rather in powerless love, which is, ultimately, the most powerful. Amen.