Something Different

The people were angry.  They were.  The Jewish people had been robbed of their land, and their dignity.  They were subjects to the Romans, their rights had been taken away and the Roman soldiers were regularly mistreating, beating and even killing those who broke any kind of law or rule.  Emotions were high, and the people were angry.

Enter Jesus, who some were calling the Messiah…the Savior…the one, they believed, who would restore their nation to greatness.

Jesus gathered the people around him, pointed at them and said “Blessed are you…you who are poor, hungry, sorrowful and despised.”  And then he said “and woe to those who are rich, happy and who live in luxury.”  

For the Jewish people, most of whom were probably poor, this was great news.  Jesus seemed to be saying that they were about to get theirs, while the Roman leaders would get what they deserved.  This sounded like the start of a revolution.

I can almost see the Jewish people, picking up sticks and rocks from the ground.  Swords and knives, maybe coming out of their sheaths.  I can see them, leaning in…listening.  I can almost hear them whispering.  “Say it Jesus, just say the word, and we’ll fight”  

And Jesus says “so I’ll tell you what we’re going to do…” and the people held their breath and leaned in further…”just say the word, Jesus!”  And Jesus says, “we will love our enemies.”

And the people blink.  “What did he say?”

“Excuse me,” one of them asks, “But what did you say?”

“Love your enemies,” Jesus repeats.  “Do good to those who hate you.  Bless those who curse you.  Pray for those who abuse you.”  

And standing there, scratching their heads in wonder, one of them asks, “could you be a little more specific?”

“Certainly,” Jesus replies, “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.  And if anyone takes your coat, offer them your shirt.  Give to anyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your belongings, don’t ask for them back.  In other words, ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  

And the people who were listening…well, they were confused…stunned even.  This was unexpected.

They had been living in the “old world”; the “eye for an eye” framework.  Payback.  Revenge.  And in this moment, Jesus had just revealed himself.  Not as a revolutionary, not as a fighter…but as a Messiah who was calling for God’s people to live…in a different kind of way, in a different kind of world.  A new world.  Jesus’ words call for love, for mercy, and for forgiveness.  Jesus words call for something unexpected.

2,000 years later, in Owatonna, Minnesota, it is easy for us to hear Jesus’ words and to listen, and to understand them up here…at the 50,000 foot level.  

They feel lofty…they feel abstract…”love your enemy…forgive those who hurt you…” Sure.  In an conceptual way, that’s absolutely true, right?  

But Jesus’ words are neither conceptual nor lofty.  He’s not at 50,000 feet.  He’s right here on the ground with us.  His words are direct and straightforward. And his words are words we need to hear now.  Today.  Especially in the world we live in.  Because just like those early Jewish people, Jesus is calling you and me to live in a different kind of world.

Do you sense the stress that the world is under right now?  In an essay in the New York Times, Jennifer Finney Boylan laments the rising tide of rage and meanness in our Covid-weary culture.  “How,” she asks, “do we respond to a world under stress, a culture in which the guardrails of so-called civility are gone?  The evidence of that stress is everywhere.  In airports, and then in the skies, you can find passengers angry about wearing masks, angry about inspection of their carry-ons, angry about, well, everything.  Closer to home, things aren’t much better, and it comes from both sides of our ideologically divided society.”  

If you take Jesus’ words from our scripture text, “love your enemies…give your coat…turn the other cheek…do not judge…and so on…” if you take these words, and you apply them to the world in which we live…well, they can’t help but make us uncomfortable.  And they should.  They should make us squirm just a little bit.  Because they are about forgiveness.  And real forgiveness is hard.  Right now we’re not good at it.  We live in a world where we are used to keeping grudges.

Jesus’ words from Luke’s Gospel…they don’t leave us much wiggle room, do they?  Jesus is clear: our call as Christians is to walk in love.  To practice mercy.  To refuse revenge, recrimination, and rage.   To give our offenders second, third, fourth and even hundredth chances.  Our call as Christians is to forgive. It’s so hard.

Let me be clear about one thing:  Jesus’ instruction to forgive…to turn the other cheek and to resist the urge to judge, does not mean that God’s people should accept injustice.  Not at all.  When we see events, activities or systems that oppress, we have an obligation to stand up and speak out.  We are called to speak out for those who suffer, especially those who cannot speak for themselves.  

But Jesus is making it clear here that forgiveness, mercy and compassion are critical values for those who follow him, and for the world.

On October 2, 2006, Charles Roberts walked in to a small, one-room Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  In the school, he pulled out a weapon and took students along with their teacher as hostages.  As police approached, he shot ten students, taking the lives of five of them before taking his own life.

This tragic story was all over the national news.  But there was a second part of the story that also became a part of the news cycle:  The Amish community forgave Charles Roberts and his family.

The Washington Post wrote that: “…in the hours after the massacre, an Amish man named Henry arrived at the home of Charles Roberts Mother and Father with a message: The Amish families did not see the couple as an enemy. Rather, they saw them as parents who were grieving the loss of their child, too. The Amish man, Henry, put his hand on the shoulder of Charles Roberts’s father, and called him a friend.

The world watched in amazement as, on the day of their son’s funeral, nearly 30 Amish men and women, some, the parents of the victims, came to the cemetery and formed a wall to block out media cameras. Parents, whose children had died at the hand of their son, approached the couple after the burial and offered condolences for their loss.

Then, just four weeks after the shooting, the couple was invited to meet with all the families in a local fire hall. One mother held the gaze of Charles’ Mom, Terri, and as both women’s eyes blurred with tears, she said that they were all grieving; they were all struggling to make sense of the senseless.

But the Amish did more than forgive the couple. They embraced them as part of their community. When Terri, underwent treatment for Stage 4 breast cancer, one of the girls who survived the massacre helped clean her home before she returned from the hospital. 

A large yellow bus arrived at their home around Christmas, and Amish children piled inside the house to sing Christmas carols.  In the sunroom of her home, Terri had a beautiful, carved plaque hanging on the wall that was a gift from one of the Amish farmers who hand carved it for her.  The plaque simply says “forgiven.”

It has been said that the Amish live in a different world.  Perhaps that’s true.  I wonder if that isn’t the world Jesus was talking about.  I wonder if that isn’t the world we are all called to live within. 

I wonder what it would be like if the world…or even just our little corner of it…took Jesus’ words seriously here.  “Love your enemies.  Be merciful.  Forgive.” 

Ultimately, I think that Jesus’ words in Luke’s Gospel aren’t commands at all.  I think they are a promise.  The promise that the world in which we live…it doesn’t have to be this way.  There are other options:

  • We can choose to treat each other the way we want to be treated.
  • We can choose compassion.
  • We can choose mercy.
  • We can choose love.
  • We can choose to forgive.

Jesus is telling us today that these things…they are a choice.  A choice that we get to make.  And when we do, we are choosing to change the world around us.  We are choosing to live in the kind of world that Jesus describes; the world that God intended when it was all created.  

The work of forgiveness is some of the hardest work that we can do.  It is also some of the most important work we can do.  It is the work that Jesus did.  And because Jesus did that…because of Jesus, you experience complete, radical forgiveness of all your sins.  You are forgiven, and made whole in the eyes of God, who loves you…so very much; who puts his hand on your shoulder, and who calls you friend.

Now it is our work to live into that forgiveness, and to forgive those who have done us wrong, and to bring healing to a broken world.  

So.  As the theologian Debie Thomas writes, “may we stop drinking the poison of incivility and bitterness.  May we glimpse the “better selves” that reside within the people who do us harm.  May we rise.  And may we taste the full measure of the freedom that awaits us when we choose to forgive.”  

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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