Sermon, February 20, 2022
Rev. Jessica Palys - KCUCC
Last week we began with the first half of the Sermon on the Plain, otherwise known as Luke’s version of the Beatitudes - with the infamous ‘woes’ - woe to the rich, woe to the full, woe to the laughing… pretty harsh verses that are difficult to hear and twice and difficult to preach on. But in reality, this one may be a more difficult one to live out.
I mean, really. I believe this may be the most difficult of Jesus’ teachings. It’s harder than giving away money, more challenging than restraining ourselves from judging each other, more anxiety-inducing than giving it all up to follow him…this passage here, this commandment to love your enemies, do good for those that hate you, have compassion for those that abuse you…?!? This challenge taught by Jesus goes against every human instinct we have - the instinct to feel hurt. The instinct to defend ourselves and protect our families. Tribalism, the instinct to group up by some commonality that both creates belonging and antagonism. The instinct for justice, retribution or revenge. This teaching shows up like a 10 foot wall in our path that must be climbed without any assistance - a huge challenge to our human natures, especially these days.
In 2016 a Pew Research study claimed that for the first time in American history, there was a significant portion of people on both sides of the partisan divide that didn’t just disagree on policy, issues or the function of government, but who actually felt that those on the other side of the issue were harmful to the country. The study stated that in prior generations, people disagreed with each other plenty but while they might disagree on the method, they did believe their opponent earnestly wanted what was best for the country. It was a study that scared me, because it so accurately described both what I heard and, honestly, a bit of what I felt.
And that was before the outbreak of COVID put all our political differences out in the open and evident on our faces and in our behavior.
Love your enemies. I have to be honest and make a confession; I’m finding this passage more challenging than I have in previous years.
A few weeks ago, a colleague of mine, a pastor in small town Nebraska shared a story with a gathering of us clergy. He told about a parishioner he had, a consistent, reliable church goer who had some leadership in his church. Now, my clergy colleague was serving a Methodist church was in a smaller, redder town than I was, and as the pandemic rolled across the country, this parishioner fell into the rabbit hole of COVID denial. Apparently, he became the loudest antagonistic voice in this congregation against COVID precautions and the pastor had gone many rounds with him on that topic over several months.
And then, the parishioner got COVID. That’s not a surprise. Apparently it was a pretty serious case of COVID, but even after his long recovery, he hadn’t been back to church. Before COVID, never missed a Sunday and fought the pastor every step of the way demanding to keep the church open. And my pastor colleague had checked on him and prayed for him in worship, but still, he wasn’t coming back to church. And so, my friend said he went to see him - with a cupcake. And when the parishioner came to the door, he said to his pastor, ‘Are you here to say ‘I told you so?’
My friend said, ‘No. I’m here to tell you that I’m glad you are still here. And to give you this cupcake.’
When he shared that story in our collegial group, it moved me to tears. It was such a perfectly pastoral thing to do, and I greatly admire his inclination to respond so plainly, with such easy love, and without judgment. But it moved me to tears, moreso, because I’m not entirely sure I could have done the same in this moment in time. I mean, as a pastor I think I could, but of course my mind went immediately to those people I’m close to… those family members and close friends that have made me crazy with their obstinance during this time. And I worry about that, about my drained well of patience and empathy, and about what the failure of compassion does to a society overall. ‘Love your enemies and do good for those who abuse you’ was challenging enough prior to this odd period of pandemic paranoia.
But the thing is, I believe these are the most critical of Jesus’ teachings. I believe these teachings are how we change the world. This is the way Christian Love surpasses the powers of this world; this is how we work towards building the kingdom of love and grace; this is the way we let people know what God is really like.
Jesus revealed to us a merciful God. In him, we see a new example of how to be. A third way forward that neither embraces retaliation or playing the victim. Luke’s version of the beatitudes compels us to turn our belief into action - it’s not just being meek, but actually prayer for those who persecute you. It’s not just being a peacemaker, but actively doing good for those who abuse you. It’s not just being a merciful, but giving to anyone who asks, without expecting anything in return. Luke takes it a step further; in his gospel, the mantra is not only ‘do as you would like to have done to you.’ Rather, it’s ‘do as God would do’. We are called to embody the Love of God, with the knowledge that you already share in God’s kingdom. As theologian Susan Hylen wrote, “The knowledge that ‘yours is the kingdom of God’ transforms the disciple’s actions from compliance to resistance in the face of evil.”
You are not giving because you are forced to; you are not being generous out of obligation, but you can give to the needy because you have glimpsed the goodness and generosity and unending mercy and love of God. And knowing that God’s well of empathy never runs dry, you can offer not just forgiveness to those that persecute you but love to your enemies.
In the words of another colleague paraphrasing this scripture, “It is easy to love the people you like. It is much harder to love the jerks, but I’m telling you to love the jerks.” “Because there was a time you were a jerk and someone loved you”…
So even when it is most difficult, as it is these days, I still believe we must strive to give people the benefit of the doubt in all things, with the goal of having compassion for them.
And even though I’m having trouble locating my well of empathy right now, I will continue to reach for it and continue to believe that I will find it. I will keep that compassion and empathy as the centerpoint of my actions, even if I’m just going through the motions for now, because I believe that is where God lives. I will keep leaning into God’s unconditional love for myself, and for others, because it’s the only thing that brings us back together and connects us back to God.