Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Art of Living Generously: Sermon for the 7th Sunday of Epiphany C

I am struck by the amazing coincidence of this reading appearing in our lectionary as our United Methodist kindred are meeting this weekend in St. Louis to determine if they will be able to remain united as a denomination while struggling with the questions of whether they will fully embrace their LGBTQ members. Yet there is certainly food for thought for all of us in this rich feast our evangelist and the crafters of the lectionary place before us.

This week’s gospel reading is a continuation of the Sermon on the Plain. Susan Hylen describes this section of the gospel as “Jesus prescribes an ethic of generosity for Christians living in a hostile world.”(1) How do we live a life shaped by God and not by instinctive reaction and lashing out that dominates so much of the interactions we see played out all around us?

It is good here to note that Luke’s version of the beatitudes is always grounded in mercy and generosity. Matthew’s version urges the hearers to be perfect, as God is perfect. And that can be daunting indeed, for one thing I think we all know is that we are NOT God, and perfection is pretty impossible as a standard. Everyone stumbles. What a relief is it to note, then, that Luke’s standard presented here is more attainable: Remember that God is kind and merciful, and so you also are called to strive to be kind and merciful.

And the world is indeed hostile to the gospel and to the Christian ethic. Don’t believe me? Listen to this summary and ask yourself when the last time was that you saw leaders, advocating these admonitions as policy:
Love your enemies,
do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you,
pray for those who abuse you.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Forgive and you will be forgiven.
Give, and it will be given back to you.

Of those seven simple admonitions, five from our first paragraph alone, probably the most familiar is the one known popularly as the “Golden Rule.” And to be clear, that rule did not originate in Christianity—in fact, I don’t think anyone knows where it first appeared—but it is certain that a similar dictum has been promoted in Judaism in the book of Leviticus, but also Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, the Sikh faith, Taosim, Homer, Philo, Confucius, and even the Code of Hammurabi. It’s even been quoted in a song by the 80s band Men at Work about an ornery kid named Johnny.

Yet there are dangers in blind application of these rules if we strip them of their cultural context. The admonition about “turning the other check” is one. Some people have construed this as an urging to continue to remain in abusive situations. I do not believe this was ever what Jesus intended. Rather, Jesus is referring here to a ritualized behavior meant to reinforce domination, not an act of random anger violence. People who would beat you on the cheek would do so by using the back of the hand, and it was done to strike one’s inferiors: especially slaves by their masters, or the oppressed Judean population by Roman soldiers. It was not just a strike, it was an attempt to put one in one’s “place.” 

Turning the other check made that backhanded slap impossible. It also exposed the violence of the one doing the striking in an act of bravery and protest. But there is more going on here. Jesus is telling us that our actions should not be based on reaction to others, but directed from our own will to obey God, our Christian ethical outlook.

In the time I spent teaching, I had students confide in me about troubled home situations, including living with alcoholic parents or other abusive situations. One of the things I always reminded my kids, coming from my own experience as a child in situations like that, especially, was that they may not be able to control others, but they DID have the ability to choose how they would respond, especially when behaviors that hurt them emerged as patterns over time.

That response might not be immediate: sometimes it simply started with determining to not follow in the footsteps and behaviors of the person hurting them—which is, if you look, exactly what Jesus is advocating, too. When we are confronted by those behaving badly, hurtfully, we cannot control that behavior. However, we do have enormous power to choose how we would prefer to respond. And that is a far cry from being powerless.

This is what Jesus is telling us in these prescriptions for living a God-shaped life which he himself exemplified for us. Jesus calls us always to remember the grace which undergirds our own lives--- the unearned love and mercy of God toward us no matter how much we screw up.

The very foundation of God’s relationship with us is not punishment, but mercy. And if we let the wonder of that sink into our very marrow, that realization changes us. It helps us let go of our own calculus of inflicting suffering in response to suffering which is so much of the basis of human notions of “justice.” It helps us smooth out the balled fists of our hearts and open them to seize the promise of a faithful God who overlooks our own faithlessness, of the loving God that calls us back from anger, fear, and everyday cruelties and sets us on living out a life based on compassion empathy and love.

An open hand and an open heart are complementary. Sociologists believe that the handshake began back in the mists of human experience as a way to offer your fighting hand to another to prove that neither one of you had weapons at the ready. And so here we are in our gospel today, with Jesus asking us to break the causal chain of violence and suffering in favor of releasing ourselves from the enduring wound inflicted in ourselves by vengeance and refusal to forgive.

And listen, I KNOW it’s hard to forgive. I am a member of Clan Graham, and our family motto is “Ne Oublie,” which means “Never forget.” I am descended from people who came howling down across Scotland wielding axes and claymores until the soil ran red. Listen! You can still hear their howls of fury echoing….. But Jesus’s message is based not on what we want (severed heads on pikes!) but on what we need (being able to put down our halberds and live in amity with each other so that we all can flourish and recognize each other’s dignity and worth).

Yet holding a grudge is one of the surest ways to weigh us down, and it becomes OUR burden, not the burden of the one who has hurt us. One of my favorite sayings about forgiveness is this: Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself as much as to the person who has harmed you, because it frees you from the chains of resentment and anger. 

Another great saying is this: Refusing to forgive someone is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.

Psychologists state that it’s easier to forgive someone when three conditions are met:
1. A good apology;
2. A good outcome (as in receiving restitution);
3. An end to the behavior that caused the hurt (what those of us in the religion business call “repentance.”)

Yet sometimes, we are not going to get those conditions met. And we can’t wait around continuing to suffer in the meantime. Life is for living. And sometimes that means letting go of our resentment even when people aren’t sorry, just so that our clenched fists and hearts can be open to be filled with good things that come along.

In Bishop Jake Owensby’s book, A Resurrection-Shaped Life, which we will be studying for our Lenten book study, he meditates on Jesus’s command for us to “turn the other cheek.”

We habitually depend upon the threat of violence to prevent others from hurting us. When someone injures us or insults us, our animal impulse is to strike back, to hurt our attacker worse. We seek to bruise and to intimidate our opponents into fearful submission. In other words, we seek to minimize our own suffering, even if it comes at the expense of someone else’s misery. Jesus is very clear. This way of walking the planet will leave the world wounded and disfigured. Instead, Jesus teaches us to take up our cross and follow him. Only love—in all its vulnerability to the suffering of others and all its risk of injury to ourselves—will heal and transfigure the world. So, when Jesus says, “Do not resist an evildoer,” he is not advocating passive submission to cruelty and abuse, oppression and deprivation (Matthew 5:39). Instead, Jesus wants us to resist evil without becoming evil ourselves…. instead of trying to crush evil, overwhelm evil with good. Feed the hungry. Help addicts get sober. Teach job skills. Share your support network with those who are falling through the cracks. Befriend the bullied. Do none of this in condescension, but in solidarity. 

Don’t withhold yourself for fear of injury to body or soul. Do the good that’s right in front of you. Every day. Our own small acts of compassion and decency might not seem like much in this big, dangerous, aching world. But together, the billions of hands and feet shaped by the resurrection are a mighty force. Resurrection happens through us. We must be patiently relentless.(2) 

The power of our gospel reading today is in its promise of abundance at the very end: if we live a generous life toward others, we ourselves will find an abundance beyond measure, so much that it spills out of our cupped hands and into our laps. We are called to practice the art of living generously, a gift to ourselves as well as a gift to others.

Jesus’s teaching here is filled with active verbs that instruct us in what we are called to do to live as disciples of Jesus. We hear repeated positive commands:
Do good.

We also hear prohibitions: Do not judge. Do not condemn.
But even these are couched in our own self-interest:
Don’t judge—so that you won’t be judged.
Don’t condemn—so that you won’t be condemned.

The message we receive today in Luke’s gospel starts from a place of gentleness and compassion—that amazingly generous gift known as grace which is better than riches or vengeance. Jesus doesn’t give us the easy news, here, but it IS the “good news” of transformation and reconciliation that leads to justice based on true healing. 

Jesus calls us to remember the grace we receive, to embody grace for ourselves, and then live out that grace in our interactions with others. To make God visible in this world, embody God’s values first and foremost: love, mercy, forgiveness, and grace. May it be so among us. Always.


Preached at the 505 on February 23, and at the 8:00 and 10:15 services on February 24, 2019, at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville.

Genesis 45:3-11, 15
Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42
1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50
Luke 6:27-38

(1) Susan E. Hylen, theological perspective on Luke 6:27-38, in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 1: Advent Through Transfiguration, pp. 
(2) Jake Owensby, A Resurrection Shaped Life: Dying and Rising on Planet Earth, pp. 22-24.

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