Monday, August 27, 2018

Facing the empire—a sermon on Luke 6

Rev. Teri Peterson
St. John’s
Facing Down the Empire
Isaiah 2.2-5, Luke 6.27-38
26 August 2018, O Sing to the Lord 13

740 For all the saints
559 There is a redeemer
535 Who would true valour see
251 I, the Lord of sea and sky
513 Courage, brother, do not stumble

In the last days
the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
    as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
    and all nations will stream to it.
Many peoples will come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
    so that we may walk in his paths.’
The law will go out from Zion,
    the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
    and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into ploughshares
    and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
    nor will they train for war any more.
Come, descendants of Jacob,
    let us walk in the light of the Lord.

‘But to you who are listening I say: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.’

This week I attended a lecture at the Edinburgh Book Festival, chaired by Derek Browning, last year’s moderator of the General Assembly. The author was an historian who, among other things, attempted to make the case that in the early years of Christianity, there were far fewer martyrs than previously thought, because the Church was not being persecuted, but rather these people were dying by suicide for reasons of their own. Her primary piece of evidence was that a large number of the accounts of martyrdom included bewilderment on the part of the Roman governors, who basically pleaded with the Christian martyrs not to do this. All they had to do was swear allegiance to the emperor. They weren’t going to ask for sacrifices or anything, just words. The historian said “The empire didn’t care what was in your soul, they cared only about your loyalty in actions. Refusing to swear loyalty to the emperor was treason. It would have been very easy to avoid this charge, since it didn’t have anything to do with religion.” She did, as an aside, concede that the emperor was a god in the pantheon of gods at the time, but ultimately she could not understand, any better than the Roman governors she was discussing, that those early Christians could not in good conscience swear allegiance to the emperor.

It was yet another reminder to me that most people think of Christianity as an interior matter, concerned only with our spirits and minds, rather than as a way of life. That shift, from a way of being in the world to a way of thinking about what will happen to us in the afterlife, happened just after the period this historian was talking about, during the days when the Empire had become Christian, at least in name, and began to use it as a tool for maintaining the feudal system that was developing in Western Europe in the medieval period. There was a brief resurgence of faith-as-action during the Reformation, but then the great awakenings in North America placed faith firmly back in the spiritual realm, and it has remained there ever since. 

I think the people listening to Jesus teach that day beside the sea would be as bewildered at this as the historian was at the thought that people wouldn’t just swear allegiance to the emperor. To follow Jesus is a way of life, a set of actions, a framework for being in the world and responding to the things that happen to us. To say Jesus Christ is Lord is to declare that Caesar is not Lord...and neither is anyone else, or anything else. Christianity is not so much about what we think but about what we do and why.

And so in today’s passage we hear Jesus teaching about subverting the usual way of the world. Love your enemies. If someone hits you, turn the other cheek—thus forcing them to either treat you as an equal by hitting you with an open palm, or to be awkward by using their other hand. If someone takes from you, give them more—shaming them by being seen to be taking the literal shirt off your back. Lend without expectation. Give for the sake of giving. Do good to people who don’t deserve it. Be merciful, the way God is merciful—the word “mercy” could also be translated as “compassion in action,” so not an internal emotional feeling but a response that reaches out and serves others, taking the initiative to help those whose cries reach our ears. Do to others as you would have them do to you—not as you expect they’ll do to you if given half a chance to get the upper hand, but as you would actually like to be treated. He tells us to be like God—and our God is different from those in the world around us, because God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. God is love, and there is no darkness in unlike all the other gods of the ancient world and the gods we have created for ourselves, the God we see incarnate in Jesus is good to all, even those who don’t know it, even those who don’t deserve it. So Jesus says again, in case we missed it or explained it away the first time: Love your enemies.

Love your enemies. Do good to them, lend to them, pray for them, bless them.

Jesus says a lot of things that often don’t feel very practical, but I think in the modern world this may top the list. In fact, the command to love your enemies has been placed into the Revised Common Lectionary in such a way that it almost never gets read. Our entire system of borders, militaries, and economies is built on antagonism, creating enemies as a way to gather power and resources. The idea that we could gather together as a global community and turn weapons into farm tools and so live together in peace is seen as laughable at best, because it doesn’t leave any room for powermongering or hoarding of wealth. And so we have turned “love” into a feeling, something we do inside ourselves, because that is the only way to have it both ways. If we were to love in the biblical sense, we would no longer be able to participate in the systems of empire. And, as the historian I heard this week exemplified, that is a bewildering place to be...and a dangerous one. If Christ is Lord, Caesar is not, after all.

And yet we proclaim that Christ is Lord. And in so doing, we also proclaim that we are not Lord, and neither is any national government...and all those other things that try to claim our allegiance, like money, power, family, property, tradition—they are not Lord either. They may be important to us, but our allegiance is always, first and foremost, to the God who calls us to join the great cloud of witnesses gathered from all over the world and throughout time, who insists that feeding each other takes precedence over military power, who touches lepers and turns over money changer’s tables and eats with women and shares the Lord’s Supper with a betrayer...and who says “Love your enemies.” Not just your personal enemies—since I suspect many of us would claim we don’t have “enemies.” But very little in scripture is written to the singular person—it’s almost always plural. Just as “love your neighbour” applies not just to people who live next door but also to the global community, so to does “love your enemies.” And it’s hard to think about loving those nations or terrorist groups or political parties that seem so bent on destruction. Especially when love is an action, not a feeling. But that is what is being asked of us, nonetheless. That is what it means to declare Christ is Lord: that even our most intractable conflicts do not get to have the power to sway us away from love, and mercy, and goodness.

This sounds impossible. But with God, all things are possible. And God is not feeble-minded...God knows this is difficult, and so has given us the tools we need to be able to work toward faithfulness. The first and primary tool is the Church. We don’t do this alone. No one faces down the empire, the powers and principalities of the world, on their own. We are one Body, under one takes all of us together to grow deep roots and stand firm in the storm of life. Jesus knows that we become like what we worship...true worship always leads to obedience, a change of life to be more like Christ—without that, it’s likely we have been worshipping ourselves and our ideas rather than God. But Jesus believes we can do it, we can worship in spirit and truth, we can be his Body on earth, we can be transformed ever more into his likeness. Otherwise he would not call us. And so we come together to be nurtured and strengthened, to uphold one another and bear each other’s burdens, to weep together and rejoice together, and to challenge each other to live according to the calling Christ has given us. This is the community where we listen for God’s voice, and then support one another in following God’s way. Here, gathered around the symbols of God’s grace, looking each other in the eye, hearing our voices blending together, we are bound up in the great circles of the faith, going out from this font, gathering around this table, living the faith as a way of life, walking the road of this pilgrimage together.

Each of us makes our own response to God’s grace...but none of us does it alone. And so we can look around here today, and every week, and find ourselves filled with courage to do as Christ commands: To practice mercy, just as God is merciful. To lay aside weapons—whether made of words or money or steel—to seek peace and pursue it, for Christ is the prince of peace. To love our neighbours, and our enemies, and ourselves, in word and deed, for God is love.

May it be so. Amen.