Impossible Love

Luke 6:27-38 (New Revised Standard Version)

"But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.  "Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back."

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We've been talking a lot about the Kingdom of God these past few weeks, and perhaps that is because we have been focusing intently on Jesus' claim on our lives. But this morning I want to take a step back and look at what it means to live out one of the more challenging aspects of kingdom building, which is love, and how it relates to us and our complicated lives. The passage this morning is one that stirs up feelings of uncertainty and asks, "How can Jesus say such things?" And that is because at the heart of our Christian faith there lies a bed of principles, which seem to contradict everything we know to be true… Do good to those who hate you? Pray for those who abuse you? Turn the other cheek? How are any of these things love? More importantly, how are any of these things just?

The first reading we had this morning is one that I think wrestles with this very idea of what love is and what just love looks like. For those who might not be familiar with the first reading, it is about Joseph, who was sold by his brothers who were jealous of him to a slave trader who brought him to Egypt. As a slave in Egypt, Joseph was presented with several varying obstacles, which led him to be placed in a position of power. And what we find in the first reading this morning is Joseph coming face to face with his brothers who had sold him into slavery as they came to Egypt looking for help, since their land was undergoing a season of severe drought and famine. While it would have been easy for Joseph to throw his brothers all in jail he didn't… Instead, he invites them to stay with him in Egypt to seek refuge and not just his brothers, but everyone else as well… It's a sneak peek of the impossible love we find Jesus talking about this morning.

I know that the passages this morning are about love, about forgiveness, and about grace… But I can't help but emphasize the critical role that sin, that broken relationships play as well. Because I have to assume that Jesus knew the kind of people he was talking to… They weren't all saints, some of them probably held deep-seated grudges, and others might have had pains that ran so deep that no natural balm could have soothed their souls. So how could Jesus have asked people to take such a radical leap of faith when talking about praying and blessing those who do you harm? It's almost as though Jesus is challenging us to embrace an impossible love. How does Jesus expect us to reach out and grasp that impossible love when we are only human?

There are probably some of you out there who have gone hunting, or have gone at a shooting range, or have shot a bow and arrow. I've only done a couple of those things a small handful of times, mostly because I'm scared of "accidentally shooting my eye out." But in case you haven't done any of these activities I mention them only because it fits with how we might view our ability to love, as ironic as that may sound… In Greek, there is a word for sin, hamartia, which in English literally means "to miss the mark." I think that this is a perfect way of demonstrating that there will be times in our lives when we "miss the mark" as we strive to live in the Kingdom of God. Our love may not always be perfect, our actions are not still perfect, and that is because we are not perfect individuals.

A part of me thinks that Jesus knew this as he stood before the crowd and spoke these words about love to those who gathered around him. A portion of me imagines that Jesus knew that we would struggle with what it means to love or to pray for those who have done us harm, and I would like to think that Jesus knew that we would not always hit the mark. To me, that is the exciting part of the gospel… To me, and to us, it should be encouraging because it reminds us to pick ourselves up when we are down to keep moving forward… We might have made a mistake this time around, but there is always tomorrow… We are people who continue to grow as we mature in our life and faith, and these experiences shape us as people created in the image of God.

It is tempting to try and boil the whole Bible down to one passage such as this. It's a passage that people can understand, and it sounds at first glance like a passage about getting along with others in the world. But we know that it's just not possible to condense the entirety of the Bible into one key verse or passage. Because if we did, we would end up missing out on most of what Jesus said. The "Golden Rule," as this passage has often been referred to as, has a much more significant implication when we see how many times Jesus uses this theme throughout the New Testament. Jesus says, "Loves your enemies." And we find Jesus saying these words only a few verses later again and again. The challenge of this passage is that it may seem simple, but it is not really as simple as we would like it to be. The kind of love that sometimes feels impossible can appear to be not only impractical but dangerous as well.

Jesus is talking to those who are the victims, not the victimizers, and is talking to those who are the abused, not the abusers. And I believe that we find that Jesus is saying that those who have been wronged should not keep being wrong! As we begin to near the end of Black History Month, I can't help but think of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who took these words of Jesus to heart. Martin Luther King Jr. didn't just roll over and let the oppressors keep on oppressing, but instead did something radically different… In front of folks with water hoses and snarling police dogs, Martin Luther King Jr. took a knee. "Only violence can fight violence," they told him, but those in power didn't know the real force of Dr. King's movement. The people who gathered around him knew the power of violence, and instead of resorting to the same old ways, they became people who would not be victims anymore. They would be grown people who would claim their God-given a place in the world.

I think that Jesus would be empathetic to someone who did not pray for their abuser… I believe that Jesus would understand that some hurts in this world run so deep they will never be healed until the last day when they stand before the loving arms of God… But I believe that what we find this morning is Jesus asking us if there is another way… That we are not the ones, who have to pick up our spears and our swords, because that kind of revenge and justice is not ours to give… "Vengeance is mine saith the Lord," is a powerful piece of Scripture that I often think about… How can I love radically? How can my love seek justice, seek healing? How can I live a life that places these hurts in the arms of God? How can love put us back onto a path of reconciliation where the impossible love becomes possible.

"Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you…" When we think that we have mastered the "Golden Rule" Jesus throws one more curveball… Just when we feel as though we have a grip on things Jesus reminds us that we need to go deeper, that we need to seek justice harder, that we need to love more sincerely, and that we need to be willing to beyond what we think is comfortable and relaxed. To give more of ourselves than we could ever hope to receive in return… It seems impractical, it seems illogical to believe that Jesus would ask us to love strangers and enemies more than the amount we love our friends and family, but that is precisely what Jesus asks of us. It doesn't mean that there won't be justice and it doesn't mean that we are meant to sit idly by and let injustice flow our way, but what it does mean is that our love needs to be proactive.

In the end, I find myself coming back to the story of Matthew Shepard… Matthew Shepard was a student at the University of Wyoming who was beaten to death in 1998 for being gay. The suspects Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson were arrested and under Wyoming state law were eligible to receive the death penalty… But in the last possible moments Judy and Dennis Shepard asked the judge to lower the sentence so that no death penalty would be issued (they were instead issued life sentences). In a statement addressing the court and Aaron McKinney, Dennis Shepard said, "I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. McKinney. However, this is the time to begin the healing process. To show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy. Mr. McKinney, I am going to grant you life, as hard as it is for me to do so, because of [my son] Matthew."

"Love your enemies," Jesus said… When I hear Jesus' words, I think of Matthew parents… What kind of power must it have taken for parents to seek out a different path when the world was seeking something different? Matthew's parents were shaped by a gospel deeper than hatred and revenge. I don't know if I could do what they did, but their actions are a powerful witness to the social power of the gospel. Such love, the impossible love that Jesus asks of us, is not always practical, but it can change the world. How will you change the world? How will you let your love guide you to take actions that seem impractical or illogical? I don't have all the answers as to how to make it happen… I know that we will make mistakes and that we may stumble on our quest to embody this impossible love… But I am confident that it is in the love of God where we will find the strength to carry out such an essential and life-changing task. Amen.