Sermon from February 20: Love: It Isn’t Easy

Love: It Isn’t Easy
Epiphany VII; February 20, 2022
Luke 6:27-38

It’s silly of me to say that love isn’t easy; you know that. Whether you’re six years old or ninety-six, you know that it’s difficult truly to love someone. If you’re a child trying to put up with parents who don’t understand you or parents trying not to set your child on a windswept rock, or a spouse or partner doing the daily thing after so many years or a friend trying not to roll your eyes: it isn’t easy. Yet Jesus ups the ante even farther: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” His elaboration on that doesn’t help, but makes it even more demanding, doesn’t it? If your enemy takes you to court and demands your coat, give him your shirt too. Actually, this picture doesn’t quite capture it. A typical person of the period, man or woman, is wearing two garments: a tunic and over that a cloak. So Jesus is telling you that when they demand your cloak give them the tunic too, so you’re left standing there naked.

Last week I talked about the world that God is making being a mirror image of the world we’re used to; this reading is more of that. In God’s world being generous is more important than being right, being kind is more important than being treated fairly, loving is more important than being loved, and one of the chief virtues is forgiveness. None of this is easy, but aiming for it is the way to live in the light of God.

I have two thoughts about this today. The first thought is that the only way to actually live this is to practice it, a little at a time. In our weight-management program, we say that the way to get where you want to go is to change one small thing, practice it until you have it pretty well, and then work on something else. For most of us, suddenly changing our attitudes and behaviors so that we love our enemies and forgive those who hurt us and are generous and turn the other cheek and on and on would be not only overwhelming but well nigh impossible. So pick one thing and work on it.

Loving and forgiving your enemies, for example. In our Old Testament reading for today (Genesis 45:3-15) Joseph found it in himself to forgive his brothers. They hated him and had sold him into slavery, and were astonished when they learned that this great royal official with whom they’d been dealing was their brother and that he forgave them. How did he do that? I suspect that it was because he had had so many years to think about what had happened. Instead of brooding on how they had mistreated him, he set himself to thinking about all the good God had done as a result. And so, little by little, he was able to forgive them.

Last week we sang the hymn that I like to call our “church hymn,” “For Everyone Born.”[1] The fourth verse is probably the hardest one to sing:

For just and unjust, a place at the table, Abuser, abused, with need to forgive,
In anger, in hurt, a mindset of mercy, For just and unjust, a new way to live.

But folks who have been abused have told me the way to be free of their abuser is to learn to forgive the abuser. Otherwise, the abuser lives in your head rent-free. Every time you give in to rage, you dredge up the memory of what they did to you, you are abused again. But to love your enemy is difficult; to forgive takes time and effort, a little bit at a time. One thing that is helping me is Jesus’ instruction, “Pray for those who abuse you.” I keep a prayer list, people and circumstances that I pray for every day. Recently I added to the list the name of the person who lives in my head rent-free, whose cruelty was so damaging to my well-being and my work, and I simply pray for that person, every day, not for anything other than their well-being. If I pray for them daily, I think that I am practicing love. It’s a start. Change one small thing and when you have that pretty well under control, then start working on something else.

The other thought has to do with what I think all this means. You might call it my philosophy about the teachings of Jesus. It hit me the other day when I was reading the Old Testament and was thinking about the play Kathleen and I had recently seen at the Orpheum Theater, Fiddler on the Roof. Near the end of the play the Jews of Anatevka are being forced to leave their homes in one of the many pogroms the Russians conducted. As they agonize over what is happening to them, Mendel says to the Rabbi, “Rabbi, we’ve been waiting for the Messiah all our lives. Wouldn’t this be a good time for him to come?” and the Rabbi replies, “We’ll have to wait for him someplace else. Meanwhile, let’s start packing.”[2]

As they struggled to stay faithful to the Lord God and the world came crashing in on them, they thought it was time for the Messiah to come. We Christians believe, of course, that the Messiah has already come. Nonetheless, we look for him to come again. We pray, “Come, Lord Jesus,” and we do hope that some day he will intervene mightily in our world to turn it completely into what God envisions. To pick up on my image from last Sunday, we pray for Jesus to return and to push the world entirely through the mirror into the Kingdom of God.

It’s the right prayer, but maybe the wrong expectation. This isn’t a radical thought by any means, but it’s really hitting home for me right now: the Kingdom of God comes in power not when Jesus comes riding in on a white horse to set everything right. The Kingdom of God comes in power when the people of God love our enemies, forgive our abusers, give away our tunics. The Kingdom of God comes in power when people follow the teachings of Jesus.

That means that our part as Jesus’ disciples is not only to praise Jesus, but to practice obeying him, even if it’s just one thing at a time. The world can look like what God envisions and it is up to us to show the way. If you and I do these things, we can change things around us. The best way to change your family, your community, your world is to change yourself. Jesus gives us a lot of things to work on changing; pick one and start there.

Our prayer, “Come, Lord Jesus” then can be not only a plea for Christ to come in power at the end of all things, but for Christ to come to us now to give us the grace to live as his disciples. Christ will send us the Holy Spirit; the Spirit’s gifts enable us to love our enemies, pray for those who abuse us, give away our tunics, and forgive those who have wronged us. In our prayer, at the Lord’s Table, as we practice little by little the things Jesus has taught us, God gives us grace to love as Christ has loved us.

G. K. Chesterton said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”[3] He’s exaggerating, of course; many have tried and have made an enormous positive impact on the world. You and I can start by practicing love in some form, one piece at a time. It may save the world.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska

[1] Shirley Erena Murray, “For Everyone Born” (1998), #769 in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal Ó 2013 Westminster John Knox Press.

[2] Joseph Stein, Fiddler on the Roof (Ó1964, Pocket Books edition, 1966), p. 155.

[3] In What’s Wrong with the World.