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Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time Cycle C (1)
Have you noticed how sometimes the time seems to fly by very quickly and you hardly believe it has gone, and at other times it goes so slowly that you can’t wait for something to end? That happens to us all. Today I want to give you a list of things. I want you to tell me if these are things that would go by quickly or slowly for you.
- A whole day in school when you are doing extra work to catch up for when the teacher was absent the day before.2. Your favorite television show.3. Playing during the afternoon with your best friend.4. Doing a lot of homework.5. Sleeping at night.6. Being out shopping with your mom or dad.7. Eating a bowl of your favorite ice cream.8. Sitting through a church service.9. Winter.10. School vacations.11. Summer vacation.12. Your entire life.
That was very good! Now you know what I mean when I say some things seem to make time go faster even though it is always passing at the same speed. The Bible takes a look at our lives – from the time we are born until the time we die – and it says that is a short period of time. It may not seem short to you, but if you talk to your grandparents or someone else who is older, they will say it is very short! But that is why God wants us to remember something very important about our lives on earth. They are only the beginning of something even greater!
The Bible says God holds us from everlasting to everlasting. That means that after we finish our lives here on earth, then we go to Jesus’ presence and enjoy being with Him forever. So while we are here on earth we need to spend our time serving Christ and getting ready to meet Him face to face.
I am often uncomfortable when someone tells me they love me. I am not talking about an honest affirmation, but about a critic. Once I had another Chaplain who happened to be my rater tell me that I was not faithful to scripture and that because I was a Catholic I was going to go to Hell. He then added that he was telling me this because our of Christian love he was trying to save me. Thanks just the same
Occasionally someone that I have a difficult time loving will cross my path. When I’m honest I admit I would be just as happy if he dropped off the face of the earth. But I refuse to snarl and then describe how my Christian love extends even to him. Will Rogers may never have met a man he didn’t like, but the rest of us know that somewhere along the line we have run into folk we flat-out dislike. At least I have. You are all probably too good to ever feel like this.
The gospel is a continuation of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. It is plain talk — tough talk — hard to listen to talk. We come today to his most difficult teaching. Here is what sets apart the Christian faith from other religious perspectives, philosophic constructs, psychological systems and elemental common sense. And yet, at the end of the day, it defines the core of Christian ethics.
Jesus says. “To you who hear I say,love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.Can we really love our enemies? If not, why did Jesus lay on us this impossible demand? If the teaching troubles you, fear not, you are not the first to back away from this. Christians have always had a rough time figuring out, or crawling out from under, the Lord’s categorical demand that we love our enemies.
A hundred years ago the great Christian, Albert Schweitzer, held that Jesus, or the early church which actually recorded the teaching, never intended that we could live like that — at least not for long. Schweitzer held that the early church believed Jesus was going to return to earth very soon — in a few years at most, and that the command to love one’s enemies was a temporary edict; what was called an interim ethic. It was like holding your breath. You can do it for a while. But Jesus did not immediately return, and the church was stuck with an ethical command no one can live up to.
Paul, who had probably heard about the saying even though he wrote before the gospels were completed, puts an interesting twist on it. Quoting from the often less than inspiring book of Proverbs, he says, “If your enemy is hungry feed him, if he is thirsty give him drink, for by so doing you heap burning coals upon his head.” Loving your enemy, it turns out, is just another way to do him in. I doubt if that is what Jesus had in mind.
We can kick and squirm and reinterpret the Lord’s words, but when all is said and done we must conclude that Jesus meant what he said. We are to love those who despise us and bless those who curse us. Indeed, it is at this point the Christian ethic is most vividly etched out in a violent, pagan, brutal world filled with hate and bitterness; a world just like ours.
Hatred is destroying the world. Jesus came to give the world life. To follow Him demands that we fight off hatred in the world, beginning with that anger that is within us.
So your children or your parents, your exwife or ex husband, your boss or the people next door have made your lives difficult, even unpleasant. They have tormented you. We can all say that there are those people whose lives have made our lives difficult. And we think, life would be so much easier if they had never existed. More than that, the very thought of the person makes our blood boil. And this nemesis is the person we are called upon to forgive.
Is the Lord asking too much? Is he expecting too much of us? No, He is only telling us to be forgiving so we can receive forgiveness. We pray in the Our Father, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. We tell God, forgive us as much as we forgive other people.
“That’s so radical,” someone protests. Certainly it is! That’s what makes it Christian. We are not certain we want religion to be that radical. We would rather it be more socially acceptable, comfortable and in line with the way we ordinarily do things. We want a nice, safe, domesticated religion, and loving one’s enemies is not it. Nor is it the way of the world. Not by a long shot. When your enemy is down you stomp on him. If you are hit on one cheek you make sure you hit back twice as hard. If he has one gun you get two. That’s realistic. That’s how the world goes. No doubt about it.
Christians, of course, did not invent love, nor do we have a monopoly on it. I don’t know of any culture or system which denies the rightness of love. The difference comes in defining whom you love. The world says, “Love those who love you.” So we come here to church and we love one another. Nothing wrong with that. But one doesn’t need to hold the Christian faith, or any faith for that matter, to love those who love them. As Jesus said, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same.” Matthew’s version has Jesus say, “They have their reward”: people who love those who love them back. The phrase is derived from a Greek term stamped on bills. “Mark his receipt ‘paid in full.’ ” Loving those who love you is no more than a mutually satisfactory commercial transaction.
But if we take this text seriously, we are confronted with much more than a commercial transaction; something beyond the way of the world, something beyond the ethic of mutual satisfaction. We have a whole new, radical, difficult — perhaps impossible — ethic.
Jesus nowhere implies that Christians won’t have enemies. While I like to think Christians are able to get along with everybody, I remember Jesus said, “Beware when all speak well of you.” If I never do or say anything that is going to disturb bigots, racists, those who trust in violence, those who live off injustice, the insensitive, the crude and rude, I may never have an enemy. But neither will I have been faithful to the gospel. Christians will have enemies all right. What they need to be certain of is that they have the right enemies.
I am not afraid of being controversial — history is God’s controversy with faithlessness. If Christianity implies being so neutral about everything that you never have an enemy to contend with, Jesus wasn’t much of a Christian. While there is no virtue in going around making enemies, and while Christians should try and get along with everyone, if we are faithful there will be those who try to silence us.
How are we supposed to love our enemies? Can we take a pill, or quote a verse or say a prayer which changes our hearts? If I do not love someone, can I twist myself around, convince myself that in fact I do love them? Can I banish, as if by sleight of hand, my negative attitude? If that is what it takes, I may get “A” for effort but “F” for performance. I can’t make myself love those I detest, or who detest me. If you can, please share your secret.
If I cannot feel differently, perhaps I can act differently, and the difference in how I act is the only way I will be able to change my mind. “Bless those who hate you,” says Jesus. “Pray for those who persecute you … To a person who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other … And as you wish that people would do to you, do so to them.” The secret is in the doing. I may not be able to control my feelings, nor can I pretend to feel differently than I do. But I can control my actions. As I have told people in counseling: It is often easier to act your way into a new set of feelings, than it is to feel your way into a new set of actions.
Schweitzer held that the early church never claimed folks could live by absolute love, at least for long. Nevertheless, that is our goal. The sayings of Jesus in this Sermon on the Plain are not a diagram of how things work in the world, but a picture of how things work in God’s kingdom. We, the church, have been assigned the task of etching out a beachhead for the kingdom on the inhospitable shores of a world now ruled by the ethic of revenge and violence.
We are God’s emissaries; we live as if the kingdom has already come. For in us, by the grace of God, it is now in our midst however imperfectly. We live and work by faith, giving ourselves in service to the one whose kingdom is both in our midst and on the way. For the coming of that kingdom we pray, waiting for that day when it is as real on earth as it is in heaven.
Can we really love our enemies? By the rules of the world, probably not. But by the grace of God we can — and must.