Last week, we talked about the differences between Matthew’s version of Jesus’ famous beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount and Luke’s version of the same beatitudes from the Sermon on the Plain. If you recall, in Luke’s version, Jesus comes down to a level place, and speaks to the disciples eye to eye, conveying an intimacy to his instructions with the disciples. In Luke’s beatitudes, the epiphany we have is not so much about Jesus’ identity, like in the visitation of the magi, his baptism, or in the wedding of Cana, but instead is an epiphany about what living with Jesus will be like: loving our neighbor, seeking and serving Christ in others, striving for justice and peace, and respecting the dignity of every human being – the very promises we make in our baptismal covenant.
In today’s lesson, Jesus goes from making eye contact with us to turning our eyes to make eye contact with those around us. When we love our neighbor, seek and serve Christ in others, strive for justice and peace, and respect the dignity of every human being, Jesus tells us those neighbors and those others must include our enemies. And this is where this week’s epiphany becomes more difficult. This passage often hits us in the gut by that simple word, “enemies.” Our minds go to the worst: the violent murderer, the manipulative sexual offender, the blatant endorser of racial discrimination, or the oppressive governmental dictator. But the harder enemies are those “little” enemies much closer to home: the disruptive neighbor who disrespects common space, the colleague with whom you avoid certain topics of discussion to keep the peace, the student at school who is so subtle with their bullying no one else sees her as a bully, or that anonymous writer in the Last Word whose opinion makes you seethe with anger. When we consider those “little enemies,” Jesus’ instruction to not judge, not condemn, to forgive, to share, and to love become a checklist of good behavior we are not sure we can keep.
A few years ago, the Greater Williamsburg area kicked off a commitment to becoming a community of kindness with a rallying event. The former Mayor of Anaheim, California, Tom Tait, who had run on a campaign of kindness, was the keynote speaker. Mayor Tait talked about his time on City Council in Anaheim, how part of his work felt like a game of whack-a-mole. Each month, some crisis or community problem would arise – violence in the community, the prevalence of drugs, problems in the public schools. And the City Council’s response felt trying to put a Band-Aid on another problem – to whack at the problem to temporarily knock the problem out. But those solutions never really made a deep impact. What Mayor Tait saw was all those problems were like symptoms – symptoms of a city that was facing an internal sickness. The only way to heal the internal sickness was to commit as a city to transform their entire way of operating. Mayor Tait believed transformation would occur by committing to kindness. To many, the idea sounded a little too pie-in-the-sky. But once elected, Mayor Tait was forced to try to live out the reality of kindness. With every decision, every major action, the community wondered together what would reflect kindness. And slowly, the illness in the system began to heal. Kindness was not a Band-Aid, but a system-altering antidote to a host of problems.
In a lot of ways, that is what Jesus is talking about today. Yes, the things Jesus is talking about are commands – a list of ways to love one another – even our enemies. But Jesus is not just talking about commands. As one scholar describes, “Jesus isn’t offering a set of simple rules by which to get by or get ahead in this world but is inviting us into a whole other world. A world that is not about measuring and counting and weighing and competing and judging and paying back and hating and all the rest. But instead is about love. Love for those who have loved you. Love for those who haven’t. Love even for those who have hated you. That love gets expressed in all kinds of creative ways, but often come through by caring – extending care and compassion and help and comfort to those in need – and forgiveness – not paying back but instead releasing one’s claim on another and opening up a future where a relationship of …love is still possible.”[i]
What Jesus is doing is trying to, “inculcate, and illustrate, an attitude of heart, a lightness of spirit in the face of all that the world can throw at you.” We are to assume this new way of being because “that’s what God is like. God is generous to all people, generous…to a fault: [God] provides good things for all to enjoy, the undeserving as well as the deserving. [God] is astonishingly merciful…” As N. T. Wright adds, “…this list of instructions is all about which God you believe in – and about the way of life that follows as a result.”[ii] When we take Jesus seriously, and embrace this new way of being, the way that leads to love, life can be “exuberant, different, astonishing. People [will] stare.”[iii]
That is our epiphany invitation today: to loosen our grip on love and allow love to flow as freely as the abundance of God’s love for the world. This is not an invitation to grin and bear niceness, like a grumbled “bless his heart.” Instead, this is an invitation to live in way that is contrary to our very human nature.[iv] As you imagine all those little enemies you may be feeling today’s invitation is impossible. And on your own, loving those little enemies is impossible. But you are not on your own. Not here at Hickory Neck. You have a community of faithful seekers – of people who long to follow Jesus – and who have just as many little enemies as you – in fact some of them may even be in this room. But with Christ and this community of the faithful, we leave this place knowing that the Holy Spirit will enable us to let go of our desperate, possessing grip on God’s love, and instead allow that love to flow through us to everyone – because there is more than enough love for us all to share. Thanks be to God! Amen.
[i] David Lose, “Epiphany 7 C: Command or Promise?” February 22, 2019, as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2019/02/epiphany-7-c-command-or-promise/ on February 19, 2022.
[ii] N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 73-74.
[iii] Wright, 74.
[iv] Charles Bugg, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 384.