Sermon for February 24, 2019

Readings: Gen. 45:3-11, 15; Ps. 37:1-11, 39-40; 1 Cor. 15:15, 35-38, 42-50; Luke 6:27-38.
The theme this week is Christ Turns Things AroundIn Genesis, Joseph assures his brothers that what they meant for harm, God turned to good. Psalm 37 is a reminder that evil has no future—God will turn things around. 1 Corinthians 15 assures us that Jesus makes the corruptible incorruptible—he changes things, always for the better. The sermon this week from Luke reminds us to respond to life with this Christ-centered, hope-filled outlook.

Off the Mad Carousel?

Luke 6:27-38, ESV

Introduction: Ask the congregation if they remember a time when people put their political positions and other differences aside to focus on just getting the job done. Ask for specific instances or illustrations.

When Hurricane Sandy hit the northeast in 2012, people’s lives were devastated. Homes were destroyed, businesses flooded, electricity down for whole counties for some time, and over 100 deaths reported. In the middle of that aftermath, the photo below surfaced all over the internet. Barack Obama, then U.S. president, was embracing a crying woman. Standing at his shoulder was Chris Christie, then governor of New Jersey.

(source)

Shortly before Hurricane Sandy, Christie had endorsed Mitt Romney who was Obama’s opponent in the 2012 election, now only a week away. Though Obama and Christie had heated differences, they were able to stop everything and rise above the fray. They were able to meet together to address needs and appear at the place where there was great pain. They both lost supporters and got bad press because they were with each other, shoulder-to-shoulder, standing up for hurting people.

I am neither endorsing nor not endorsing anyone’s politics today. What I am endorsing is the humanness of a moment like this—us at our best, reaching out to those who are broken. For just a moment, stepping out of the constant back-and-forth grind of Washington and American media (if you push me, I push you back), there was a moment of peace and connection. They stepped off the swirling merry-go-round of the world to be still for a moment, to listen to a higher call and a higher voice, which was God himself.

The English poet TS Eliot called Jesus the “still point of the turning world.” The still point is where there is peace and clarity; it is not defined by the constant noise of events. The still point is where you see God’s greater plan at work, where we hear his voice and his music behind it all. That still point is on display in pictures like this one, where people walked out of their own politics, vying for attention and money and power, and simply served, simply gave a hug.

I don’t claim to know what Obama or Christie’s religious connections are; that’s not important to this point: Christ can shine through anyone; every person is created in God’s image and that image can gleam in moments such as this. I’m reminded of the Pope forgiving his attempted assassin—a moment when a person stepped off the constant turning of conflict and revenge to connect with another human being, despite their differences.

Jesus talked about these realities in our Gospel reading today. He said that we are to love our enemies—showing that his upside-down kingdom is built on different coordinates. He says to do good to those who hate you—showing that his kingdom will run on different values and go toward a different end.

Turn the other cheek, he says. In other words, don’t live your life by reaction. He calls us out of the endless grinding traffic of human culture to step into the still point, cease from striving, and know that he is God.

I can’t help but wonder if we’ve gotten so used to hearing these beatitudes that we really don’t see them, or hear them as we should.

There’s a famous scene in the movie Life of Brian, which was made by a wacky group of British comics called Monty Python. It’s about the life of Jesus, or rather a guy who was born down the street from Jesus named Brian. There’s a scene in this movie where people are watching Christ give the sermon on the mount, but they are seated a little too far away and can’t agree on what he’s saying. Blessed are the cheesemakers?! What’s so great about the cheesemakers?! Well, I think he’s referring to all manufacturers of dairy products. Blessed are the Greek—what’s so great about the Greek? The Greek is gonna inherit the earth, did he say which one? I know a lot of Greeks!

Kind of a silly example, of course. But it seems like that sometimes with Jesus’ words. It’s like we’re just out of earshot, and we hear what we want to hear. Or, we are so familiar with the passage, we don’t even hear it anymore. It’s so in our face all the time that we get a case of what has sometimes been called the “yeah, yeah, yeahs.”

That’s very much OUT of the spirit of what Jesus is saying here. He is telling us to wake up, to be aware of how we move in the world. The beatitudes are about breaking through our natural reactionary reflexes and working by heaven’s value system. Such as Obama and Christie serving with each other to help those who are hurting.

Remember a couple weeks ago when we talked about Luke 4 and referred to it as Jesus’ inaugural speech—where he laid out what was going to happen throughout his ministry? This sermon is a continuation of that theme—and our participation in his ministry.

Luke’s major theme is the poor—reaching out to the poor, lifting up the poor, giving the poor a voice. But the definition of the word poor is much wider than we are used to. Poor doesn’t just refer to those who are financially challenged, but it refers to someone who is outside on the margins. Those with special needs and disabilities were considered poor. Prostitutes were considered poor. Even tax collectors, who were drowning in money, were considered poor because they were viewed as traitors to their own people and therefore not allowed relationship with the community. So, in this beginning part of Luke, Jesus is hanging out with the poor as broadly defined in the way Luke sees it.

What we’re seeing here is classic Luke. Luke talking about Jesus as a revolutionary in society who wanted to redo things in the way that God sees it. So what he does in this sermon on the plain is to lay out the values of the kingdom that he is meant to bring—values that God wants us to make our own.

Values are what drives a community. The values are the things that bring us to make certain decisions in certain ways. Many churches stake a value on eating together. Most churches have a fellowship hall or a kitchen, and some of the most expensive equipment in the building is there. There is a value that drove money decision making, energy and time. That is how values work. What Jesus lays out in the sermon on the plain are the values of his kingdom, the values of his community. These are values the people of God will put their energy and time and money toward. These are not as much rules to be followed to be good, as a portrait of what it means to be God’s people. These are the values that drive us.

And the Sermon on the Plain is about stepping into the still point—off the mad carousel of you hurt me and so I hurt you. You insulted me and so I insult you. You owe me, so I chase you down. The values of the kingdom bring us away from that into the still point of the turning world.

Let’s look at these values:

Love

But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. (Luke 6:27-28, ESV)

He doesn’t say, “Feel great about your enemies.” Like what your enemies are doing to you. Think that your enemies are fantastic. Feel great about your enemies. He doesn’t say any of that. What he commands us to, in this next group of phrases, is ACTION.

Action

  • Do good to those who hate you. Do good. That is a choice and an action.
  • Bless those who curse you. Bless them! That is an action.
  • Pray for those who abuse you. Pray for those who hurt you. Do good, bless, pray.

Nowhere in here does he say feel spectacular about your enemies. Nor does he ever say don’t be angry about what’s happening to you. Don’t be mad when someone hurts you. Jesus never says that. He commands us instead to action.

This is what we see in this picture of Chris Christie and Barack Obama working together. No, they’re not mortal enemies, but they are political enemies. They disagree with each other deeply. But they put it on hold so that they could reach out and help people.

To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. (Luke 6:29-31, ESV) 

Here Jesus gets specific.

  • Turn the other cheek. Roman soldiers could slap Israelites, and slave owners slap their slaves. Slapping was part of the culture—the “necessary violence” of that kind of world at that time.
  • Give your tunic as well as your coat. A soldier could come up to you and demand your coat from you. These were daily occurrences. Jesus says to give your sweater vest as well.
  • Do to others as you wish they would do to you.

Jesus is talking about how we react. He is again drawing out the values of the kingdom. Slapping your slaves was a common practice. It was like whipping a horse. And it was done like this: you would stand in front your slave and with your right hand you would give them the back of your hand to the right side of their face. That was the socially acceptable way to do it. People would see it and they wouldn’t even bat an eye. The slave would just stand there.

And Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek. Now, if I turn the other cheek, can you slap me in the acceptable way? No. What comes up here is this awareness of what’s going on. When you show them your other cheek, you are implying it would be a special act of cruelty for them to slap you again. As one of God’s people, you are exposing the injustice in society. You are exposing that this master-slave relationship is not the way the kingdom looks, not the way things were meant to be. You revolutionize against the “acceptable violence” of society by your own sacrifice. That’s what Jesus did.

What about the coat and tunic? A soldier could walk up to you and say, “Give me your coat. I’m cold” or “I like your coat give it to me.” Again “acceptable violence”—this was the kind of extortion the soldiers were involved with regularly. It was considered part of life. The thing that Jesus says is to give them your tunic as well. ALL you were wearing was a coat and a tunic! So if you gave them that, you would be standing naked in the street next to that person. You would expose not only yourself, but also the injustice in that society. Jesus is revolutionizing society with love. Revolutionizing war by waging peace. Revolutionizing greed by generosity. Revolutionizing hate by love.

If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount.  But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.  Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:32-36, ESV)

What is Jesus saying here? He’s calling us off the mad carousel of you hurt me, I hurt you; you owe me, I owe you; you offend me, I devastate you; even you scratch my back, I scratch yours. The central problem in the human world—tit-for-tat, quid-pro-quo. Off the carousel, into the still point. Before you react, before you give into the impulse of what’s in it for me, step away.

The resurrection is our reminder that the mad carousel will not take the day. The resurrection is the promise to us that death itself, the ultimate tit for tat, the ultimate revenge, will not triumph. Jesus threw his own body into the grinding gears of sin to stop the cycle, and the mad carousel is at last destroyed. Let’s live in that reality.

Three thoughts today to put in your pocket.

  • Be the wrench—Be the wrench in the system that stops its grind. Be the fly in the ointment, the one who says that the mad carousel won’t take you with it. You hear a rumor, let it die with you. You are offended by someone, be the shock absorber, the one who stops the chain reaction.
  • What’s your “acceptable violence?”—the things that Jesus spoke against here—slapping slaves, stealing coats, making people carry your equipment, were considered acceptable at the time. A lot of pain went by before these things became unacceptable. What’s our “acceptable violence” today? What are the things we need to raise our awareness to? Excluding someone from a social circle, sharing gossip, not helping when you could help—all these things are considered “acceptable” in our society. Let’s wake up to that. Let’s step off the carousel.
  • Welcoming the poor—Jesus starts his ministry in Luke with his inaugural address welcoming the blind, the imprisoned, the oppressed, and the poor. Remember that the definition of poor for Luke reaches far beyond money. He’s talking about the outsider. We all know people who have more money than any of us, and yet are “poor” in their spirit. They are “poor” in their hearts and sick with loneliness. How can we welcome these? How can we welcome those who don’t look like they are supposed to?

Wake up, church. Wake up to constant cycle of give-and-take around you. Very soon in the story here, Jesus went to give his life to stop that cycle, to stop that mad carousel from going around again, and to become the still point of the turning world. We are called to join him.


Small Group Discussion Questions

  • The sermon began by referring to the famous picture of then president Barack Obama (Democrat) and Governor Chris Christie (Republican) helping people side-by-side during Hurricane Sandy. They both lost support and were heavily criticized for appearing there with each other. Can you think of another example where people reached across party, ethnic, or other lines to help those in need?
  • Luke’s major theme is Jesus’ interaction with the “poor,” whom he sees as broadly defined including those who are physically disabled (disabled, chronically ill), marginalized by society (prostitutes), and morally bankrupt (tax-collectors). Jesus called these people “blessed” (Luke 6:20). Why? How can we welcome these people as he did?
  • Jesus talks about how to treat our enemies. Notably, he never says to “feel great” about your enemies or “be glad” about how you are being hurt by them. He calls us to action—do good, bless, pray for (Luke 6:27-28). Why is this distinction between feeling and acting important? How does this change our response to Jesus word to “love your enemies”?
  • Jesus calls this society out on its “acceptable violence”—slapping slaves and soldiers extorting people. What is the “acceptable violence” of our society? What actions that are considered “acceptable” (gossip, greed, grudge-keeping) in society are unacceptable for children of God? How can we swim against this tide?
  • What does it look like in our daily lives to get off the “mad carousel” of eye-for-eye in our society? How do we stop the cycle of sin-for-sin, revenge-for-offense in our own lives and world?
  • In Genesis 45 we see Joseph revealing himself to his brothers and telling them this was all part of God’s plan. Describe a time in your life when you saw later how God had planned things out for you.
  • Psalm 37 reminds us to be patient and to trust God to work things out. Share a time you’ve had to trust God and you’ve seen his hand in your life.

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