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Your Reward Will Be Great

  • February 24, 2019
  • 08:00 AM

Sermon for 24 February 2019 (Epiphany 7 Year C)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             Genesis 45.1-15; Psalm 37.1-12,41-42; Luke 6.27-38

Title:               Your Reward Will Be Great

“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; [who] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6.35-36).

My friends, what does it mean in practical terms for us to love our enemies?

When Woodrow Wilson was governor of New Jersey, one of the two senators from New Jersey died suddenly in January of 1913 – just before Wilson was to begin his journey to Washington for his inauguration as President.

The one who died was the young Senator William Hughes who happened to be from the same party as Governor Wilson and who was also a dear friend of the governor. So naturally, the governor was quite saddened by the news.

However, just a few minutes after the Governor received the call with the sad news of the senator’s death, he received a second call. This call came from a shrewd New Jersey politician who was famous for his crafty scheming and maneuvering. And who evidently had an impressive information network!

“Mr. Governor,” this man said, “I have heard of Senator Hughes’ untimely death. It saddens me greatly, but I want you to know that I am ready to take his place  – of course, as long as it’s alright with you.”

Governor Wilson was surprised by this, and then he became annoyed as he quickly grasped what game this fox was playing. So a moment later he responded, “Why, yes, that would be fine with me – of course, as long as it’s alright with the funeral director!”

Conflict is inevitable in this life, as so many different wants and desires meet together and clash over who has control in any given situation and whose will is done. The story of Joseph and his brothers is a classic biblical example of conflict within a family.

Conflict is inevitable and unavoidable in life, so the crucial question for all of us is how we handle conflict, how we manage it, and how we can use it for good.

That’s what this teaching from Luke’s Gospel is all about. It is one of my favorite teachings from the Lord Jesus, because it gets right to the core of what makes this human life so challenging and difficult: and that is the conflict which we all experience.

This teaching is so amazing, so revolutionary, so beautiful that is has the power to change the world! On a personal note, this is why I do what I do, why I have spent my entire adult life studying and reading and learning about the way of Jesus.

What would happen if people actually took these words to heart and made a commitment to live them, to embody them, to practice them in real, concrete ways in their everyday lives?! What do you think would happen?

Our human experience would be transformed. And the rest of creation would be far healthier and even more abundant.

But we need to start with the simple question first. What does it mean to love our enemies?

But perhaps we need to back up a little further and ask what it means to love. We need to remember that LOVE is not an emotion. It is not, at least, not the kind of love that Jesus talks about in the Gospels.

Agápe is the Greek word used in the text and it means an unconditional commitment to the well-being of the other.

Jesus is not saying that we need to have warm fuzzy feelings about our enemies, or toward those who attack us.

That is impossible. We cannot control our emotions like that, and God knows this. The teaching is not to change how we feel about our enemies, but to change how we act toward those who trouble us.

Love is a verb. It is what we do.

There’s a great little story from the desert about this. One time a number of the brothers were sitting together and discussing the meaning of love.

And one of them asked rhetorically, “Do we even know what love is?”

So he told them that one of the great elders in their community had a small knife that he used for his daily work of making things to be sold in the market.

But a brother came once to visit with this elder and the brother said, “You have a great little knife.” And the elder would not let that brother leave unless he took that knife with him. (Apophthegmata Patrum Alphabetical Agathon 25).

And THAT is love! But wait a second, didn’t the elder need that knife for his daily work? Sure, but the opportunity to demonstrate love in that moment was far more important.

Perhaps we should say that love is the act of giving away our own treasured possessions. After all, didn’t the Lord lump all of these things together in his teaching, as if they are all closely related?

“Love your enemies, do good and lend, expecting nothing in return…Give and it will be given to you…for the measure you give will be the measure you get back”

So if love means to give to others generously, what does it mean to love our enemies?

Over the centuries, different churches have understood these words of Jesus in different ways. The Anabaptists – the Mennonites and Amish – and the Quakers are some groups who have refused to serve in the military of any nation. This is true of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as well. Jesus told us to love our enemies, and these groups say, how can you claim to love your enemy while you are also planning to attack and kill them?

In the 16th century, one of the early Mennonite leaders in Holland was named Dirk Willens. The year was 1569 and Holland was ruled at the time by the Spanish Duke of Alva. But the Spanish have never been ones to look kindly on the actions of rebellious Protestant reformers like Willens.

He was arrested by the authorities and locked in a prison where he was held in solitary confinement and fed meager rations. In the spring of 1569, Willens managed to escape and he began to flee across the thinning and melting ice of a nearby pond.

Unfortunately, one of the guards spotted him and ran after him in pursuit. But the guard, who had been eating well throughout this time, was much heavier than the fugitive Willens. The guard broke through the ice and fell into the water.

Willens heard the cries for help coming from this guard who was facing a certain death in that icy water. It was dark. No one else was around. A moment of decision was at hand. What was he to do? Should he let the guard die in the icy water?

“Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6.31).

Do you know what Dirk Willens did? He turned around. He ran back and helped the guard out of the water and up onto the ice.

The guard was astonished and grateful, of course. BUT, he was still under orders to arrest Willens and so he grabbed him and forced that Protestant reformer back to the prison. And just a few days later, Willens was condemned by the Spanish authorities as a heretic and burned at the stake.

“Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6.31).

To love others in the way that Jesus teaches is to take the initiative, to extend grace to others – whether they deserve it or not.

If we are looking for a safe and comfortable path through life, then following Jesus is NOT going to be your best option.

Because we have to be honest and admit that it doesn’t always come back to us in the same way that we give it out, and to love others in this way of Jesus can be very risky.

But there is good news in this text. Amazingly good news! What is it?

It is grace. The amazing grace of God who is merciful and kind even to the worst people you can imagine. Even to you and me. This entire teaching is about WHO God is and WHAT God does.

And the good news is that there is no grand karma book-keeping that determines what we get, because we do NOT get what we deserve!

And thanks be to God! We get far better than we deserve. We get to have lives that are overflowing with blessings far beyond what any of us deserve. We get to experience the presence of God surrounding us and filling us with joy and hope and peace and love beyond anything that this earth can provide! And this experience lasts beyond the grave – beyond death. It is unending.

No, we do not GET what we deserve. Therefore, we do not GIVE as others deserve. Grace is what we have received. And so grace is what we are able to give. Because grace changes ALL of our calculations.

A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over – THAT is what we pour into the laps of others, because THAT is what we have received from God.

So are you ready to love others as God has loved us?  May it be so. Amen.

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