Preached on 24 February 2019 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
The Sermon on the Plain, part 2: Extremist for Love.
The writer of Luke from the very beginning, sets up a recurring theme that we see throughout the Bible:
The theme of reversal. We first hear it in Mary’s song, the Magnificat, which is borrowed from Hannah’s song in the book of Samuel. She glorifies the Lord for scattering the proud in their conceit, casting down the mighty form their thrones while lifting up the lowly, and filling the hungry.
In his first sermon in Nazareth, Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah and then claims that this Scripture is being fulfilled that very day. Again, we hear about reversals: good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed.
Then, last week, in the first part of the sermon on the plain, we heard him offer a set of blessings and warnings, each with a reversal. Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of God, blessed are the hungry who shall be filled, those who weep who will laugh, those who are reviled because of him, whose reward is great. But woe to those who are rich, who are filled, who laugh, and who are held in high regard; they have received their reward.
The kingdom of God does not look like the status quo. It is not the promise of a future reward. The kingdom of God is now. It is within us. It is possible to dwell there even in the midst of this broken world. Part 2, what we heard today, is not separate from this. Jesus continues, preaching what sounds unthinkable. Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you.
Jesus reveals the character of God as unbounded mercy and love for all of us. He calls us to reveal this character of God by embodying it in our own lives. We can’t do it by sheer will, but only through the grace of God.
We are already blessed and loved by God, not because we are “doing it right,” but because loving is the very nature of God. Our response to the world with love and mercy flows out of that reality.
Still, I struggle with this.
On the one hand, I think Jesus really means it. Love not just your neighbor, but your enemy. Turn the other cheek. Give, lend, forgive, not just those who will do the same for you, but those who won’t. And you will experience the kingdom of God within yourself.
On the other hand, these verses have been used so often by people with power in order to bolster and perpetuate injustice, oppression, violence, and abuse. Those who suffer are told to turn the other cheek. Don’t stand up for yourself. Love your enemies. Forgive them. Wait. Wait for some future reversal. Wait for justice. Wait for freedom. Wait.
How do we square this teaching with the promises in our baptismal covenant: persevere in resisting evil; strive for justice and peace; respect the dignity of every human being (including oneself)? For that matter, how do we square it with the reversals in the first part of the sermon?
I find it particularly jarring because this is Black History Month. We’ve been seeing highlights of African Americans in history; reading about some pretty amazing people, their lives, their achievements and their contributions. The history books have ignored them and often their achievements have been attributed to white people. But of course, one doesn’t have to be amazing to be worthy and valued; to deserve love and justice and dignity.
Oppression doesn’t cease simply by the passage of time, though, not even centuries. Alongside those stories of amazing people in history, we hear the news stories of racial hatred. Whether it’s actual hate crimes, or racist speech or discrimination or bias, or just plain bad and hurtful behavior toward people of color, we see that this country is still steeped in the sin of racism.
It’s one thing for Jesus who, like those to whom he was preaching, lived under the occupation of the Roman empire, it’s one thing for him to preach this message of radical, extreme love.
Or for Martin Luther King to likewise preach to those who like himself lived under segregation laws and oppressive racism.
But who am I, a white, comfortable, middle-class person, with an education, the fancy robes, a paycheck, and a microphone; who am I to preach this message to love your enemies and those that persecute you?
I cannot, in good conscience, tell people who may be oppressed or abused at home, at work, at school, or in their community to just turn the other cheek.
Yesterday, I read Martin Luther King’s letter from the Birmingham jail. It was addressed to a group of white clergymen who had written an open letter to him and to the people protesting in Birmingham in 1963. He challenged them, responding point by point.
When it came to them calling him an extremist, he wrote that at first, he was offended. But then he embraced the label. He pointed out that Jesus was an extremist; an extremist for love and he cited this Sermon on the Plain, and listed other biblical figures as extremists.
Perhaps I can square Jesus’ sermon with all those other principles this way:
When we resist evil; when we strive for justice; when we love those whom the world deems unworthy; when we challenge the powerful, we will be met with resistance. Guaranteed. At times, we will be met with persecution or even violence.
We then can choose to respond with malice, with hatred, with violence; we can choose to retaliate. OR we can choose to respond with mercy and forgiveness and love. We can choose, through the grace of God, to be extremists for love.
Still, I struggle. I guess the best I can do is pray that through the grace of God, I can persevere in resisting evil – both within myself and in the world around me – while embodying God’s mercy and love, even for those who do me harm. Because I, too, need God’s unbounded mercy and love.
What about you?
Perhaps through the grace of God, we can become extremists for love.