Have you ever had an offer you couldn’t refuse? Some friends of ours asked us if we would like to join them at their time-share in sunny Cancun, Mexico. It took us less than 30 seconds to say, “Yes!” After all… they were good friends and fun to be with – and… well… Cancun in February sounded pretty good too. It was a generous offer and encouraged us to be generous too.
We had our chance sooner than we expected. When we landed in Mexico, we – and everyone else on the plane - headed towards the Mexican entrance security line. Except… it wasn’t a line. It looked like a mob. In the far distance, we could see some people moving, we assumed, towards the passport security booths. But between us and those lines…. there were at least 200 people. The goal was find the way to the line. It took a while.
Meanwhile… everyone else was trying to do the same thing. It took a long time – and as we neared the entrance to cue line, a couple of guys almost came to blows over who was cutting in front of whom. There was a lot of jostling and in the midst of it all, I almost tripped on someone’s backpack. I looked down and there was a little girl trying to sleep on that backpack. One of her parents was holding her little brother – who was asleep – and the other was trying to hold the luggage – and move the girl and backpack forward in line. We motioned for them to go in front of us in the cue and I placed myself behind the little girl so that no one would step on her.
As we wound our way forward, we began talking with the parents – and engaged the kids in some silly games and conversation to keep them entertained. What could have been a long, dreary three hour contentious wait, ended up being filled laughter and delight.
This is what God wants for us.
In his teaching called the “Sermon on the Plain” or as one translator calls it, “The sermon on the level places,” Jesus proclaims God’s love, God’s mercy and God’s generosity. And then…. Jesus levels the ground for the way that we, as God’s people respond. In the midst of a world of fierce competition in which everyone is striving to get ahead and a person’s worth and status is judged in comparison with another’s, Jesus teaches a new way. There is no hierarchy, no “levels of holiness to achieve,” no cutting the line to get ahead. Instead, Jesus proclaims what seem like impossible “commandments.” Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you...”
This is the way of Jesus. But sometimes… especially when seen as commandments, these words have been used – wrongly - by people in power to oppress others. For example, I heard on a news report about a nun in India who was raped by a bishop. She was told that she should not report him but instead to pray for him, turn the other cheek.
That is an abuse of scripture. That is a use of scripture that is self-serving – just the opposite of Jesus’ way. That is using the power of scripture to gain more power, not caring for the neighbor.
When power is abused, as it was in this case, the Christian response needs to be to care for the victim. And that is what happened. In India, in response to the treatment of this nun who was wronged both by the bishop who abused her and by the supervisor who told her not to report him - a large group of nuns protested, publicly standing up for her. In fact, they wouldn’t stop protesting until the bishop was brought to justice.
Jesus’s words can be – and too often have been – abused and misused.
But what if we look again at what Jesus is saying. What if Jesus is not giving more commandments, more laws to keep, more reasons to feel guilty when we don’t measure up?
What if, instead, Jesus is proclaiming words of promise and blessing? What if Jesus is encouraging his disciples and us to live into a new way…God’s way, and promising us that when we live generously with our spirits, generously giving ourselves and our time, generously sharing resources of our money and our hearts and lives, the result will be an abundant life.
What if we think about how we can live out Jesus’ promise to: Do to others as you would have them do to you.
In Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming, she tells about an interview she had at the University of Chicago. She grew up just a few blocks away. But when University officials asked if she had applied there, she said, “Applied? I’ve never even been here before.” They were completely surprised – and wanted to know why. She explained that it wasn’t a very welcoming place. She did not feel wanted or welcome. She said that East coast schools like Princeton and Harvard – both of which she attended – were more welcoming than the college in the neighborhood. The University wanted to change that image and asked her to help them change. She agreed and was hired to be a bridge-builder between the University and the community.
It made me think about our relationship with our neighbors. How do they see us? How can we share the abundant love of God with our neighbor? How can we be bridge builders? Sometimes it just takes intentionality.
Over the past 10 plus years, I’ve been encouraged by the collegiality of the Wildfire churches, the eight ELCA congregations in the Robbinsdale Area School district. We used to be competitors – each one trying to out-do the others, but now we see ourselves as partners, eight outposts of God’s mission field, collaborators in the Gospel. Right now, we are leaning into the promises of collaboration – for the sake of the neighbor. We are asking the questions of: How can we share the abundant love of Christ with our neighbors? How can we live out Christ’s admonition to: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
The same is true of Greater St. John Missionary Baptist. Just a couple of Sundays ago, Pastor Gholston said to me, “We have got to show the world that we are partners in the Gospel.”
Living into Christ’s promises isn’t always the easiest way. But, as someone once said, “The ground is level at the foot of the cross.” This is a place of humility. No one has greater status or authority than anyone else. But, instead, Jesus calls you all – and me –to not only love God – but to love the neighbor with the radical love of Jesus.
Jesus is calling us to God’s way… the way of love in which there are no hierarchies.. there are no comparisons or judgments made… because each one is called beloved…
And…not just for us! I don’t know what happened on the journey back and forth through the cue lines, but I noticed the man who almost punched out the other offering his hand and asking for reconciliation. “No hard feelings?” And the other man smiled, shook his hand and said, “All is good.”
Jesus encourages his followers to live into God’s way… the way of love, the way of generosity of spirit, of relationships and of love. This is the love of Jesus that is overflowing, overwhelming and that we are blessed to share. Amen.
27 "But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do 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. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 If 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. 35 But 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. 36 Be 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; 38 give, 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."
Message: God’s way is the way of love, a way that forgives, uplifts and is kind to both friends and enemies; generosity results in surprising abundance and joy. This is a promise – not a command.
Pastor Pamela Stalheim Lane