Rainbow > Black-and-White

My sermon from Sunday, February 24th.  The gospel lesson was part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, and the first lesson was the Old Testament story of Joseph’s reuniting with his brothers.

[Jesus continued to preach,]

27“But I say to you that listen,

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

32“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.  34If 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.

35But 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.  36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

37“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38give, 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.”

 

Dear people of God, grace and peace to you from our loving Creator, through Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Last week I mentioned how Jesus preaching the Beatitudes in the gospel of Luke was the setup for his “how-to” this week on the topic of discipleship living – his suggestions for action when you find yourself in the “woes” column of wealth, fullness, happiness, and renown.  So, what DOES he suggest?

Love your enemies.  Be merciful.  Lend, expecting nothing in return.  Don’t judge, don’t condemn.  Forgive.

These all sound great on paper. They sound like noble actions and good intentions in the hypothetical – when they sit in the “what if” column.

But is Jesus really serious?  Does he think these can actually happen?  In OUR world?

We might start our pondering by looking at our first lesson today.

Long story short, Joseph the powerless younger brother is now Joseph the powerful administrator of Egypt.  Joseph’s older brothers, who thought they’d gotten rid of him, are now on the brink of starvation and begging for help from the administrator of Egypt – who they don’t know is Joseph.  Joseph, of course, eventually tells them who he is and forgives them immediately for the awful things they did to him.

Why would he do such a thing?  Is Joseph a wimp?

No, Joseph is the administrator – in essence, the ruler – of all Egypt, one of the most powerful countries in the world at the time.  Joseph has been through a lot.  And Joseph TRIES to keep the façade up and not reveal who he is.

But Joseph’s moral compass is stronger than any desire he might have for revenge.  His guidance from God moves him to forgive his brothers and repair the breach in the family, because he cannot bear to see them starve to death.  Joseph’s superb administrative skills kept not only his own family, but a large portion of that part of the world from falling victim to a horrible famine.

Could Joseph have kept everything for himself and his friends?  Could he have stayed angry at his brothers and sent them away?  Well, of course he could have – but he didn’t.  He chose a way that brought reconciliation.

This kind of mercy and forgiveness can be hard for us to grasp today, especially with our society so incredibly polarized.

“If I forgive the person with whom I disagree politically, that means that THEY WIN and I lose and that’s just not acceptable.”

“If I show mercy to that person on the margins, then people will say that I actually support the kind of lifestyle that person lives and that’s just not right.”

That kind of approach is very black-and-white – what mystic Richard Rohr calls “dualistic thinking.”  That kind of thinking is helpful in some situations, but in matters like mystery, or grace, or God – it’s way too limiting.

Dualistic thinking would use the reasoning of “an eye for an eye”.

Non-dualistic thinking points out that such reasoning leaves the whole world blind.

In this gospel story, Jesus breaks out of an either-or way of thinking and moves to something beyond even a both-and kind of thinking.  Both-and is good, it’s a step on the way.  But Jesus goes to a third place, a radical new way to live.  And I think that’s why he says “to you that listen”.  He knows not everyone is ready to step outside the lines and hear something new – but some are, and you have to start somewhere.

Instead of hating one’s enemies, or running away from them, or strategizing on how to defeat them, Jesus suggests that we love our enemies.

Keep in mind, Jesus isn’t insisting that we drum up positive emotions about our enemies.  “Love” in Jesus’ words here is not a feeling, but an action – and this is a critical pointYou can LOVE your enemy without LIKING your enemy.  Loving your enemy means living in the hope – and acting toward the possibility – that your enemy’s life can be conformed to the goodness that God desires for all people.  Note: not the goodness that WE desire, but the goodness that GOD desires.  They’re likely different.

Doing to others as we’d have them do to us is about turning what could continue to destroy persons and communities – into actions that carry the potential for healing beyond what we can imagine.

I do want to make clear that Jesus is NOT saying here that we are expected to take abuse in any form.  Turning the other cheek is an action of love that is meant to upend what is expected.  We are all imbued with free will; if one to whom you show love responds with unloving actions, then Jesus has modeled that you remove yourself from the situation – as he did with the murderous crowd in Nazareth.  A part of neighbor love is helping folks in such a situation.

Let’s be honest.  Jesus’ presence in the world is profoundly unsettling.  It makes people angry.  It threatens what they perceive to be their power.  It lifts up people that many call undeserving.  AND – it pours love and grace out to all.

What would happen, in our angry and polarized society, if for one week people lived completely by these suggestions of Jesus?  What if we didn’t relegate Jesus’ sayings in this passage to just “aspirations of what’s possible” – but believed them to be activities that might indeed make God’s Kingdom palpable?

Last week, this observation from Bernice King, youngest daughter of Martin Lulther King Jr, showed up across social media:

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.

Jesus preaches this tough love in his Sermon on the Plain.  Remember, we are all on equal footing here on the plain.  We’re not competing to see who has the best discipleship take.  I also don’t think this is a mandate for “living your best life now.”

No, these words of Jesus are a vision for what is possible, for what should be if we have Jesus’ sermon at Nazareth in mind and if we have Mary’s Magnificat in mind.

Maybe Jesus’ teachings on the plain aren’t rules so much as they are the natural progression from the song of his mother and his first sermon.

Because of her Magnificat, because of his reading from the scroll of Isaiah – we cannot NOT love our enemies, or do good to those who hate us, or bless those who curse us, or pray for those who abuse us.

Because of what’s gone before, we cannot NOT do to others as we would have them do to us. We cannot NOT be merciful, just as God is merciful. We are not asked to or called to judge. We are asked to forgive. We are charged to imagine the measure we give as that which we will get back.

That’s breathtaking.  And it’s also really hard work, friends.

In “The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World” Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa writes:

I would like to share with you two simple truths: there is nothing that cannot be forgiven, and there is no one undeserving of forgiveness.  When you can see and understand that we are all bound to one another – whether by birth, by circumstance, or simply by our shared humanity – then you will know this to be true.  I have often said that in South Africa there would have been no future without forgiveness.  Our rage and our quest for revenge would have been our destruction.  This is as true for us individually as it is for us globally.

It is important to remember that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa did not seek forgetting.  It sought a form of forgiveness.  And it took many years.

Hating people only inflames the conflict; instead, Jesus is teaching his disciples another way.

When we read this gospel story, we tend to start justifying our feelings towards it.  “Yes, but…” is our reaction.  What if our reaction is instead “yes, and…”?  Instead of living in a vengeful, retributive reality, what if we intentionally seek to build a reality based on love?  As theologian Cornel West has said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

Love in public seeks forgiveness and justice, not forgetting and injustice.

What if Jesus comes to restore the rainbow to the black-and-white world WE’VE imposed on God’s created world?

The rainbow after the flood was God’s covenant with God’s people that God wouldn’t flood the earth again.

Jesus says with the cup, “this is the new covenant in my blood…”

I believe that Jesus is not content to merely say “well, we could do grey I guess.”  Instead he makes the bold claim that there is a third way that is so counter-cultural that it is a rainbow to our culture’s black-and-white reality.

Does his presence in our world and in our lives restore those rainbow colors to our black-and-white world, such that it doesn’t even make room for grey?

I think it does.

If you go outside after worship and look at the roses around the patio, at first glance they look pretty barren.  You might even say they look a bit black and white.

But if you look closer, you’ll see the leaf buds emerging and beginning to break open.

Even in the face of torrential rains and freezing cold, you can see the beginnings of a rainbow of colors that come with the first defiant roses blooming.

It’s a simple and clear reminder to us that God calls us to a bigger way of thinking and being in the world.  A way that goes beyond the black-and-white to allow the unlimited spectrum of the rainbow to remind us:

we have another way to respond to the world.

And I believe the world will sigh: thank God.

Amen.

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