Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Pastor Eric Deibler

  • Genesis 45:3-11, 15
  • Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40
  • 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50
  • Luke 6:27-38

I’d like to start with a quotation I ran across this week. It’s a tweet from Rev. Bernice King, daughter of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Jesus didn’t call it ‘social justice.’ He simply called it Love. If we would only Love our neighbors beyond comfort, borders, race, religion and other differences that we’ve allowed to be barriers, ‘social justice’ would be a given. Love makes justice happen.”

There are lots of ways to describe the Bible, depending upon your perspective. Scripture, The Word of God. Other people may see it as a storybook of God’s people. The more practically minded might define it as a rulebook, or a guide for life in general. What is the Bible? Why read it? What difference does it make in your life?

Every so often, we run across a portion of scripture that forces our hand when it comes to deciding what role the Bible plays in our lives. This is one of those passages. It makes us realize that, putting aside all theological theorizing, sometimes the Bible is simply words to live by. Words that teach us what it is to be decent and kind. Words that remind us how easy it is to become self-centered and inwardly focused in an overly indulgent way.

What would happen if we were to take Jesus’ words for today and actually live them? What if we saw them as something more than simply aspirational? What if, instead, we recognized them as advice on how to make the Kingdom of God a very real thing in this world?

“Jesus didn’t call it ‘social justice.’ He simply called it Love. If we would only Love our neighbors beyond comfort, borders, race, religion and other differences that we’ve allowed to be barriers, ‘social justice’ would be a given. Love makes justice happen.”

Being the church is never easy. Being a person of faith is never easy. And Jesus’ words for us today show us why. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

It’s very tempting to take these words and to relegate them to being an ideal of some sort. Making them an ideal, means treating them as an abstraction. They become nothing more than an idea, a theory. Which, of course, makes them that much easier to ignore or, at the very least, to slip into our back pocket where they might serve as the occasional uncomfortable reminder.

Not so much a thorn in the side as the occasional dull pain in the behind.

If we can do that successfully we disarm them. We strip them of any potential real impact upon our lives and our behavior. They no longer expect or exact any real change from us, on our part. And so, we can continue on our merry little way! We can call ourselves Christian without it’s impacting our lives. Faith is then no longer a journey, but a walk down the well-trod primrose path which requires no thought, no reflection, and no sacrifice. But then, how do we reconcile that with the journey of Jesus, who willingly journeyed to Jerusalem and the cross? The answer is that we can’t.

Why does Jesus recommend what he does? Wouldn’t this make us suckers?  Won’t we become the world’s doormat if we assume as passive a posture in the face of abuse as Jesus seems to suggest? 

Most churches I know are pretty careful about handing out money to folks who wander in off the streets looking for a handout. In fact, in our last congregation there was a system in place that allowed us to check with other churches, if someone had received aid from them. The idea was to keep track of people who “abused the system” by going from one church to the next, telling the same sad story in each place.  (“My car is out of gas and my father is in the hospital in Philadelphia.  If I could have $20 to get down there, that’d be wonderful.  I’ll be able to pay you back later when I come back through this area . . .”)  We even sent emails to warn people about these “frequent fliers” who exploited unsuspecting churches.

Jesus’ words here are hard and radical. They demand a lifestyle and set of practices that we find difficult to imitate. So why would Jesus say this? Why would Jesus set us up to be suckers, wide open to abuse?  Does anyone really operate this way? Well, yes.

Listen: “Then . . . you will be children of the Most High because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” Ahhh.  Now we get it. Jesus is recommending no more and no less than the same thing he’d seen all along in his Father. As the Son of God himself, Jesus is speaking from divine experience. When you’re the creator of the entire cosmos, you sooner or later get used to seeing people scarfing up and consuming all the bounty of your creative imagination yet without even once giving a sidelong glance back to the Giver of all that good food, good wine, and good everything. Seeing ungrateful people is a commonplace for God. God has spent altogether too much time watching delicate creatures fashioned in his own image strutting around this world and seeing themselves as “self-made people.” 

“Because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.”  That line reveals much as to what is behind Jesus’ rhetoric in Luke 6. It also tells us that if we think that following Jesus’ advice here is a quick path to becoming a sucker, we should wonder about that a little. Unless, that is, we want to label God as a sucker.

In the end, as always, it comes down to grace. Grace is more than just a nice word. It’s God’s radical love for us and for all creation. It’s so radical, in fact, that it demands of its recipients and practitioners a radical reorientation in life. It’s a total reversal, in fact. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are you when suffer for my sake.

And what is this supposed to look like? Well, it looks like Joseph and his brothers. In this Egyptian Epiphany, Joseph not only makes himself known as the long lost and presumably dead brother, but, more importantly for us, he makes known God’s intention in the whole sordid story of Joseph’s enslavement and ultimate enthronement. 

Three times he says, God sent me here. You sold me, but God sent me. You intended to eliminate your annoyingly proud brother, but God plans to “preserve for you a remnant on earth.” You wanted to enslave me, but God wanted to “save your lives by a great deliverance.” So, he concludes in verse 8, “it was not you who sent me here, but God.” Out of your great sin God will give you great abundance as you settle in the land of Goshen near me. And in the final reversal, the brothers who sold him into far off Egypt come near to Joseph in near worship and overwhelming gratitude.

What mattered was not their intention, but God’s. What mattered was not the darkness of sin and slavery and famine and terror, but God’s intention to use all of that to accomplish God’s good purpose. What an epiphany for them. What an epiphany for us.

Joseph knew that God’s intentions are not like ours. They’re not mere wishes or resolutions, the kind of fragile plans that can be so easily broken. We intend all kinds of good things, but then the weakness of the flesh or the wavering of the will or the forces of nature or the powers of history destroy our intentions. God’s intention is not a wish or resolution. It’s a firm promise that he will faithfully keep because he is the God of the covenant. God’s intentions for Joseph are rooted in his covenant promises to Abraham years before. A promise that would be fulfilled in Jesus years later.  God’s intentions are set in his covenant love that promised to save the world through Abraham.

The problem is that we often think too narrowly about salvation. We think it means only forgiveness of sins and a place in heaven. That seems too spiritual and remote in those real-life moments when we are called upon to act in the ways of Christ. So, it helps to see that salvation for Joseph meant not only that his family was saved from famine, but also that they were saved for prosperity. It meant that they received a place on this earth where they could be at peace: peace with each other, peace with themselves, peace with God, even peace with the forces of nature that had ravaged the earth. 

That’s what God intends to give to those who trust him. Peace. Perfect peace. The Shalom of paradise. The peace that comes when God is with us.

As the Church, The Body of Christ, we are the physical manifestation of God’s presence in the world today. And God grants us the opportunity to bring the power of the Kingdom to bear upon the world. How? Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you. …love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return… 37“Do not judge; do not condemn. Forgive; and 38give. …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.”

I began this sermon with a quote from one pastor. I’d like to close it with a quote from another: one of my personal heroes, Rev. Fred Rogers. Yes, he of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. “I believe that appreciation is a holy thing – that when we look for what’s best in a person we happen to be with at the moment, we’re doing what God does all the time. So, in loving and appreciating our neighbor, we’re participating in something sacred.”

AMEN

 

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