“What Love Looks Like”
A Sermon for Pilgrim United Church of Christ
by Milton Brasher-Cunningham
February 20, 2011
In these weeks leading up to Lent, we have been traveling through the Sermon on the Mount, as it has been called down through Christian history. Early in Jesus’ ministry, it seems, he stood in front of a large crowd who had gathered, trying to understand who he was and what he was calling them to do, and he laid it out for them, and for us, in terms so clear that we have struggled with them ever since. Jesus was leaning into the Jewish law, part of which we heard in the passage from Leviticus earlier, and then taking it beyond those boundaries, beyond what felt appropriate, beyond what seemed even possible. Hear the passage again, this time from The Message:
Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: “Don’t hit back at all.” If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, gift wrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.
You’re familiar with the old written law, “Love your friend,” and its unwritten companion, “Hate your enemy.” I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. [God] gives [the] best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.
In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.
I like the way Eugene Peterson deals with Jesus’ admonition to be perfect as God is perfect: “grow up,” he says. The Greek word unfortunately translated as “perfect” has more of a sense of wholeness or maturity; be “grown up” is not a bad way to say it. Think of the world as something other than a junior high playground fight. The point is not to get even. In fact, when we read Jesus’ sermon, the point is not even to win. The point is to love one another as God loves us and them. Every last one another.
And I think it’s hard to come to terms with what Rich Mullins called, “the reckless raging fury that we call the love of God.” It’s hard for us as human beings in general, and I think it’s particularly difficult for us as Americans, because our society is built on the premise that the only ones who matter are those who have fought their way to the top. “We’re Number One!” is our national motto, engrained deep in the muscle memory of our culture. Jesus didn’t talk about winning; he talked about loving in a visceral and tangible sense: don’t hit back, don’t seek revenge, don’t live with resentment, love your enemies. Ronald Goetz says,
God’s love is like the rain — refreshing when it falls in moderation and with regularity, but terrifying and destructive when it comes in blowing, blinding sheets.
Jesus said it falls on us all — and the point is to make sure everyone gets soaking wet.
The larger applications of the specifics in these verses are the most apparent. Since we live in a world desperately in need of both dentures and guide dogs, the futility of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” seems obvious, and yet we continue to choose retribution over reconciliation at most every turn. So it matters that we say out loud, and to ourselves, that torture is wrong, that the way we treat many of our prisoners in this country is unconscionable, that the death penalty should be abolished.
When we hear Jesus’ words, we can call up images of the students sitting at the lunch counters in Greensboro, or the children being rolled by the water cannon in Birmingham, or Ghandi and his followers being beaten for trying make salt – all of which are visceral examples of Jesus’ admonitions, but where do we see ourselves in those words? In our culture today, which is paralyzed by polarities, bent on making sure our enemies get blamed, and becoming more and more determined to let our national “recovery” happen on the backs of the poor, how are we living out Jesus’ call to compassion and discipleship? How can we?
I think it is perhaps easier to apply Jesus’ words to larger societal issues than it is to talk about how to live nonviolently in office buildings and classrooms and homes and grocery store lines and, well, churches. Jesus did not say, “Blessed are the powerful,” or “Blessed are those in control,” or “Blessed are those who get their way.” At the root of our need for power and control is fear: fear of not being enough, fear of being taken advantage of, fear of losing, fear of not being remembered, to name a few. There is something in us that worries about being forgotten.
I knew a man many years ago who was an excellent guitarist and a studio musician in Nashville. His name was John Goin. He said the trajectory for his profession went like this:
who is John Goin?
get me John Goin.
get me a young John Goin.
who is John Goin.
We will not be remembered by what we built or what we conquered or who we beat. We will be remembered by how we loved. Don Henley was right when he wrote:
I’ve been trying to get down to the heart of the matter
But my will gets weak and my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it’s about forgiveness – even if you don’t love me anymore.
“How many times should we forgive someone for the same offense?” The disciples asked Jesus. “Seven?”
“Seventy times seven,” was his answer. Grow up and love your enemies.
Mary Gordon points out that, “Nothing in Jesus’ diction could be paraphrased by the words “it would be best if” . . . or even “it would be good if.” His prescriptions are detailed, specific, and unequivocal. . . . But there is a certain thrill to the impossible prescription. And isn’t it possible that only the vision of the impossible makes the great a possibility? Without the challenge of the impossible, would we be doomed to the mediocre?”
Knowing what love looks like, how can we settle for less?
I must say, the more I dealt with this passage during the week, the more one face came to mind when I tried to think of those whom I know who understand this kind of love more than I, and that was our own John Blackburn. I knew him as one who made a point to find me in coffee hour, who was dedicated to teaching English on Wednesday nights, who was passionate about how our faith frames our view of creation. I didn’t know until after he died that he had been Provost at Duke, among many other things. He was what love looks like: full of grace and compassion.
May we all have the courage to grow up and grow into our calling to love one another as God loves us. Every last one of us. Amen.
I LOVED this line …
“Since we live in a world desperately in need of both dentures and guide dogs, the futility of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” seems obvious, and yet we continue to choose retribution over reconciliation at most every turn.”
Hope I get to hear the next time …
This sermon touched me so deeply. Thanks for sharing it. The song by Don Henley is one of those that just haunts me at the most surprising time especially the refrain about forgiveness and the “heart of the matter”. It just pops into my head and stays with me without any warning kind of like a sort of musical grace note. It’s reassuring at some level to know that his words have meant something to you, as well.
Take care, my friend.