Glebe Road United Church
Sometimes I wish that Jesus wasn’t so clear in his teaching. Most of the time he uses parables and rich symbolic language, which can be confusing and frustrating to our modern ears, but in this case what I wouldn’t give for a nice parable about sheep or vineyards. Why? Well, what do I, what do we do with love your enemies? There is a cartoon which depicts this story, Jesus teaching the crowd to love their enemies. Some in the crowd exclaim “surely he doesn’t mean the Romans!” I think it captures the dilemma we experience when we think about this commandment. How do we talk about love and forgiveness for those who do and express terrible things? How do we love the Romans?
How do we reconcile Jesus’ call to side with the marginalized, the poor, and yet love those who exploit the marginalized and the poor? How do we love the relative who posts conspiracy theories on their Facebook page, the co-worker who talks about “those people”?
I have preached before about love not being some hallmark romantic vision of niceness. Loving people is messy and complicated. Trying to write a message that speaks to the truth of what God calls us to and the reality of our current world has never felt more complicated. In moments of feeling a lack of inspiration of creativity I turn to two things, first desperate prayer that the Holy Spirit will inspire me and relying on my study, education, and on people who are wiser than me. I thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, someone I quoted before – perhaps one too many times. But I turned to him because he lived during a time of crisis when truth was corrupted by propaganda and the church failed to respond to evil. Bonhoeffer preached and wrote during the rise of the Nazi government in Germany. And he interesting for many reasons, one which particularly inspires me is how his faith and hope remained even when he was imprisoned and later executed by the Nazi government. What is encouraging about his writing is how someone who clearly knew what it meant to have enemies and experience evil could still have hope in God and God’s redemptive work through Christ.
Bonhoeffer preaches a sermon in 1932 called “Staying Grounded in Turbulent Times” written during economic and political turbulence in Germany. He compares the situation in Germany of trying to walk across a sea of floating ice floes. He writes,
“One Cannot rest anywhere, cannot get a foothold too long, or you will sink into the bottomless void, the abyss.”
In such a situation Bonhoeffer notes that worldly and religious voices that proclaim certainty are especially attractive. These voices offer speeches which turn into symbols and banners of our own good and just cause, they become irresistible affirmations of one’s own strength and courage.
This is a helpful analysis for our current political climate and divisions. The truth of this rings loudly. Of course, we seek certainty in our times. However, Bonhoeffer’s point is that the trouble happens when we assert confidence in human will and the certainty of cause rather than using the standard of God’s commandment and promise and failing to acknowledge human weakness.
“But I say to you, love your enemies.” It is as if Jesus knew about our human weakness and tendency to assert our own will and believe that our law is the same as God’s commandment. Funny that. Jesus takes all of our human assumptions of what we ought to, of what is right, and flips them all on their head. It is as if Jesus knew the word “but,” was on our lips.
“But I love people,” we say.
“But I do good things,”
“But I donate to worthy causes,”
“I fight the good fight”
But, but, but… and Jesus responds, “For even sinners do the same.”
Expect nothing in return Jesus says – be merciful for God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. I don’t know about you but there are times I find it very difficult to be kind.
So, what do we do about these words from Jesus? How do we love justly and with kindness without enabling evil and injustice or incurring abuse? I think one helpful response that a colleague shared in response to his scripture was that to love someone is to pray for them. Our love does not condone them or enable them but prays that God will work in their hearts to change them. This is the difficulty of our call as Christians, but it is our call to live in God’s realm according to God’s character. The good news is that God’s power is enough and present for us to live such a life. To love someone is to desire their well being, it may cost something but shouldn’t victimise us either. Loving people, even our enemies, is the desire for the well being of others and the self.
Jesus tells us to remember that God is merciful with us and kind to the ungrateful. This has the power to heal us, in receiving God’s mercy we are able to love and share it with others. There is a reciprocity to God’s love and mercy, that in receiving it we are able to give it to others for the mutual flourishing of us all.
Jesus uses a metaphor of a “measure.” In his time when people went to the market for grain, a merchant would fill the measuring container to the brim, shake it down so that every cranny was filled, and then pour the overflowing grain into the apron of the buyer to carry home. It is an image of abundance, of ensuring that there is more than enough. God’s mercy is like this; it fills every corner of our measuring cups, packed in tight, and the extra is not wasted or left on the floor but given to us as well. And we are called to give the same measure of mercy as we have been given.
Preaching on these topics are difficult, especially when we live in a world that seems to be constantly at war. The struggle is a reminder that this stuff, this being Christian thing, is not easy and it is not meant to be. It is also a reminder that scripture ought to challenge us and that sometimes the word we want from God is not the one we need. It is a reminder that God finds a way to draw us closer into her realm.
Then what to do about those enemies of ours, those Facebook posts that anger us? I do not have an easy answer, prayer that God’s power is present to change people, that mercy is there even if you can’t feel it for others right now. And maybe that is enough for now.
I will leave you with this, Bonhoeffer reminds us that when we are faced with uncertainty and when we do not know what to do to turn our eyes to God. Turn our eyes to the God whose promise is firm. The God who promises that all things are being made new, that even though we die we have life. It is by God’s grace we have received mercy. What I do know is that in all of the turbulence and turmoil of our current times, God’s measure is the one which we ought to keep our eyes on. May God’s love and mercy be revealed to us all, amen.