Some of us seem to be have tendency
to make what Jesus says as difficult as possible.
When I was first reading our passage from Luke to prepare for this sermon,
I got as far as the verse which says
if anyone takes anything of yours, do not try to get it back.
I confess that my first response was to think,
"It's too bad that I didn't get back the money I loaned
before I starting working on this sermon!
Now I won't be able to ask for it."
I wasn't hearing any good news there.
I think that I was a little bit hard of hearing that day. I couldn't hear any good news in Jesus' words. Not that I couldn't hear the words. The words were obnoxiously loud, echoing around in my head. I needed to hear beyond the words. I needed to hear Jesus talking, to listen to what he was saying and to stop listening only to the rustling worries in my memory.
Jesus tells us to
lend, expecting nothing in return.
I couldn't hear Jesus speaking when I first read the passage.
All I could hear was me and my life.
Where the scripture says
I heard, "Do you remember that loan you made last September?"
Yes, I did remember it. I even had a note on my desk to remind me.
Then came the words,
expecting nothing in return.
To me, that sounded like,
"Too bad; you can't have it back."
So I didn't hear any good news when I first started preparing for this morning.
But I don't think Jesus is talking about last September. It was me, not Jesus, who had the events of September in mind. Too much in my mind, in fact. I was stuck in my thinking, and it was hard to take a different point of view. Hearing the words that way, they seem to be hard words, difficult words.
Later on as I thought more about them, I felt these words open up, so that I could push the lines of text aside, like the branches of an overhanging tree. My thoughts stepped out of the dark and tangled thicket of my own experience into a sunlit, happier place. I invite you to follow me out of the hard religion which we make for ourselves. Let us visit, at least, the sunny side of those leafy branches where Jesus invites us to live.
Jesus tells us to
lend, expecting nothing in return..
Yes, he tells us to lend. Lend, by all means, and invest.
If you have resources, let someone else get some benefit from them.
You are allowed to invest in another person's happiness
and you are allowed to judge someone else's happiness
to be more important than making more money.
It's OK. Jesus says so.
And what reward do you get if you increase the happiness of the world?
Here is the good news:
God is eagerly looking for any excuse to make us happy.
What kind of reason can we offer God?
Jesus tells us,
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you.
Jesus offers a whole list of little things we can do
that will make God happy.
Are they a change from the ordinary ways of life?
But it is such a little change!
How much time does it take to tell God you hope for good things in someone's life?
What will it cost you to do a favor for someone who doesn't much like you
– the same favor you would do for her if she did like you?
What will it cost to make life a little better instead of little worse?
These are easy words. These suggestions will hardly take us out of our way and they cost so little extra. As often as we are able to turn unhappiness around, we make God happy. Whenever we do good things like these, we give God an opening to make us happy.
Jesus is saying things we already know. The words that Jesus spoke on the plain were not new even 2000 years ago. These aphorisms were commonplace proverbs, part of the folk wisdom of the day. Some of his sayings (such as the golden rule) are familiar to students of theology and philosophy throughout the world. You don't have to be a theologian or a saint, or even a Christian, to be familiar with these ideas. Yet Jesus thinks that they are important enough to gather up and present as a part of the Sermon on the Plain.
Here is the good news: Jesus is saying things we already know. Jesus is painting a picture of the life God wants for us and he is drawing with familiar images. So there is hope that we can understand how to make God happy and maybe, some of the time, put it into practice.
Yes, Jesus' words are easy words, but they are sometimes hard to hear. I am not the only one who has found it hard to hear Jesus' words. Others have had even more difficulty than I in getting beyond that dark forest of their own experiences and hearing the good news that Jesus is speaking. I want us to remember that the woods really is dark and that some of us are entangled in deeper thickets and having a harder time getting clear. There is no magic map that will guide every person into the sunshine. We should not prejudge the difficulties these verses hold for some of our friends and fellow Christians. But if we ourselves can stand clearly in the sunshine, then at least we show that life is not all shadows.
If anyone strikes you on the cheek,
let him hit the other one too.
Sometimes when this verse is read people hear "doormat".
Hearing the words in that way would make them hard to hear.
We have the right not to be doormats, brothers and sisters!
Still, a person wiping their feet on us doesn't make us doormats, it only makes us only dirty. It was the middle of the night when I thought of this story; I hope it still makes sense in the light of day. Imagine that you go to work one muddy spring day. Your obnoxious coworker Issachar, who never liked you, comes in just after you and proceeds to wipe off his muddy shoe on your left pant leg. I wouldn't blame you if you were shocked and upset. But suppose, for the sake of the story, that you had the presence of mind to say, "Is your other shoe dirty, too? I have another leg." There's little danger that you would become a doormat that way; the only danger is that you might make Issachar appear an even bigger fool than he actually is. But if Issachar isn't too big a fool, you might have just disarmed his dislike of you and made a bad situation a little better.
I trust that my middle-of-the-night story is not very realistic. (If it is, it is definitely time to look for a new job.) I mean it as a bit of exaggeration to make the point that there is more than one way to hear the sayings that Jesus chose to use in his message.
A little farther on, Jesus tells us,
If someone takes your jacket,
don't hold back your shirt.
Sometimes people listen to that verse and hear "naked".
Hearing the words that way makes them very hard to listen to.
Sisters and brothers, don't we have a right to be clothed?
But then again, must we always stand on our rights? Life is full of rights; in our culture we often use "rights" as a way of defining all kinds of relationships. The language of "rights" is very old, and it is very current in modern American culture. You have the right to go with a green light, you have the right to vote, you have the right to be paid when you work, you have the right to hold onto what is yours. These rights are real, and you should use them. But then again, do you have to define your whole life in terms of your rights?
Perhaps we can leave the language of rights back in the dark woods of our lives. Or, even better, we can take that language out of the woods, bring it into the sunshine, and convert it to Christ. Here is what I mean. You have the right to go with a green light, and you also have the right to let an errant pedestrian pass by uninjured and unmolested. You have the right to hold onto what is yours, and you also have the right let some of your possessions go in order to make life better for someone.
Another way of saying this is to say that we have a variety of rights. There are "civil rights", those given to us by the government – which, in our case, means the rights we give to each other. There are "human rights", which are those rights which just about everyone in the world realizes belong to every human person, no matter what the local government might say. And then there is the right which God gives us to do good.
Well, we aren't doing good all the time. I mean we never attain the level of consistency that God has, and our inconsistency is called "sin". Sin is the common lot of humanity; we are all sinners. In our capacity as sinners, we have no claim to any special reward. Let's not put on any airs on the basis of being sinners like the rest of the world.
But God is kind.
God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked,
If God is kind not only to the ungrateful,
but even to the positively wicked,
then how much more will God want to reward us
whenever we are able to do some good?
Here is the good news:
Every time we show love to someone not very lovable,
every time we let someone off the hook,
every time we wish good fortune for someone
who isn't hoping the same for us,
every time we do these things, we make God happy.
Here is the good news:
God is the doting daddy, waiting for a smile.
God is the mommy who celebrates every time we share our toys.
Didn't Jesus say,
you will be children of the Most High?
God is the grandma who is sure that we are
only just a little less than perfect,
and can't be convinced that we are as incorrigible as we appear.
That's the God that Jesus talked to.
A Moravian minister (one whom you all know) spoke to me about you while I was preparing this message. "Enjoy them on Sunday," he said. "They're good people." That sounds so much like Jesus. You are good people, people whom Jesus enjoys. Jesus wants you to enjoy each other, and himself, and the good life which God has made available to us. And what reward do you get if you increase the happiness of the world? More than you expect, more than you dream of, more than you can even wish for …
Here is the very good news: God is eagerly looking for an excuse to to make us happy. We share our toys, and God shares the gifts of heaven. We let a neighbor off the hook, and our debt to God is paid for us. We give a cup of flour, and God gives back life in full measure, pressed down, shaken together, overflowing, carried out to us, and placed in our laps.
Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers. Trust in the Lord, and do good. Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Trust in the Lord, and do good.
Psalm 37: 1, 3a, 4 [NRSV]