Be merciful as God is merciful: A Sermon for 7 Epiphany, 2019

Who’s your enemy? Take a moment and think about them. Who is it? Why are they your enemy? Is it someone you know, someone who wronged or hurt you deeply? Is your enemy more abstract—do you think of political figures or groups whose ideas and actions offend you? Or is it members of another religious or ethnic group whose hateful rhetoric and violent tactics threaten you? Draw a picture in your mind of the person, real or imagined, whom you passionately and completely hate. Be honest with yourself; there’s someone or some group that you hate…

Jesus said, “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.

Hard words, challenging words. Words that seem so far beyond human possibility that we assume they must be hyperbolic, intended to demonstrate to us once and for all, human incapacity to do the right thing. Or perhaps they are meant only for the perfect few, saints like Francis or figures like the Dalai Lama who seem to be live on a completely different plane of existence than those of us in our busy, messy, complicated lives.

But what if they are meant for us, too?

Remember where we are in Luke’s gospel and what we have already heard. Jesus has come down from the mountain to a level place with his disciples. There was a large crowd pressing in on him, seeking the healing power that came out from. And in the middle of that throng, Jesus lifted his eyes up to his disciples and began to teach. As we saw last week, he began with the beatitudes, a series of blessings pronounced on the poor, the hungry, those in mourning and those being persecuted. Corresponding to that series of blessings was a series of curses: on the rich, the full, those who are laughing, and those who are respected or well-regarded.

Binary oppositions, blessings and curses, reversals of fortune. As I pointed out last week, how we react to these contrasts and reversals very much depends on where we situate ourselves; with which groups we identify.

Now Jesus shifts gears, and the ground under our feet shifts as well. For instead of allowing us to position ourselves comfortably, Jesus’ words strike home uncomfortably, challenging the distinctions we make, upending our assumptions, our attitudes, breaking down the lines we draw between “us” and “them” between those who belong to our group, deserve our love and compassion, and those on the other side of the border, our enemies, outsiders.

I feel the need to come clean with you—these verses: Love your enemy, turn the other cheek profoundly shaped my upbringing and ultimately how I still strive to follow Jesus. I hesitate to bring up my background as a Mennonite publicly because it too quickly becomes little more than a curiosity, something exotic. But these verses and stories interpreting or embodying them have entered the marrow of my bones and shaped my heart and soul. I’ll tell just one of those stories.

In the 17thcentury, Dutch Mennonites, after gaining toleration and becoming successful merchants, compiled a collection of stories of the men and women who had been killed for their faith in the sixteenth century. Many of the stories are accompanied by engravings. One of them depicts the story of Dirk Willms who had been convicted of heresy for believing and practicing adult rather than infant baptism. On the way to the place of execution, he somehow escaped from the authorities, running for his life. He crossed an ice-covered river, one of his captors in hot pursuit. But the pursuer broke through the ice and was in danger of drowning. Willems could have gone free, he was across the river, but instead, he went back, and helped his captor to safety. It may surprise you to learn that in spite of his heroism, Willems’ execution went on as planned.

It’s a story that strikes us as unbelievable, relating behavior that to us is inexplicable and foolish. It’s no way to live one’s life, no way to survive as an individual, much less as a community, a church, a nation. Whether or not we find Jesus’ words believable, or relevant, or possible, the challenge to love our enemies, turn the cheek, to give one’s shirt as well as one’s coat, to lend expecting nothing in return confronts us with questions of personal worth and value, the relative importance of self and other, and yes, sheer survival.

But these words challenge us in other ways. For those of us with privilege and status, they pierce the armor of our wealth, gender, color. For those of us without, they work very differently. It’s important for us to be conscious of how they have been used and interpreted over the centuries and even today—how they have been used to oppress and to maintain structures of injustice. Even today, how many pastors counsel victims of domestic violence to turn the other cheek and passively accept the blows of their husbands or fathers?

What if, instead of commands, these words are meant to unsettle and de-center us, to move us away from the certainty of our existence and the world we know into a journey toward a new world, where God reign’s and where God’s love is the model for all of our relationships and for all of human community? Jesus came down from the mountain to a level place where he taught a vision of a new world order, coming into existence in the community of his followers. It is a vision of a community with no barriers or boundaries, no distinction between rich and poor, friend and enemy.

As hard as it is for us to imagine, or even to articulate, there is yet one more step to take. When we view these words as commands, we place our behavior on a continuum of obedience: Should I turn the other cheek? Did I turn the other cheek? And if in a particular instant we choose not to, because of fear or threat to life and limb, or simply because our anger overwhelms us, we may judge ourselves and feel shame and guilt for falling short.

Luke, in his compassion and concern for his readers, offers hope and consolation even on such occasions. In Matthew’s version of these sayings, Jesus concludes with the admonition: “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Luke’s version is quite different, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

Using this as a lens by which to read Jesus’ statements offers us a new way of seeing, a new world of possibilities, the reign and realm of God—where the neat calculus of debt and repayment, crime and punishment, eye for an eye no longer is operative. And that’s true not only for the specifics that Jesus talks about but also for us. We need not use this calculus on our own lives and actions. God is merciful and invites us to receive God’s mercy and in turn to offer it to others and to the world.

The instructions which Jesus gives his listeners on the level place are instructions that address our actions towards those who act violently or unjustly against us (love your enemy, turn the other cheek) and address our actions towards those with whom we are already in relationship (if you love those who love you). But the heart of the matter seems to be that whether friend or foe, our actions should not be guided by how others treat us but rather by how God treats us: Be merciful as your Father is merciful.

It may be that we often interpret God’s disposition toward us in terms similar to how we act towards others, loving friends, hating enemies experiencing guilt, expecting punishment when we sin. But God is merciful and forgiving. Receiving God’s mercy and grace gives us the power to share that mercy and grace with others.