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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Listen! Agape and God-Mercy - 02/24/2019

Listen! ….

Love your enemy.

Do good to those who hate you.

Bless those who curse you.

Pray for those who abuse you … and so on.

You’ll be happy to hear, I think, that the conclusion of Jesus’ sermon in a level place is very specific to the people Luke envisioned when writing this. If someone asks for your coat, you will not be expected to strip naked in downtown Munising to help them.

It’s important to remember differences in context when studying scripture. And not only because of simple and kind of easy-to-forget context differences, like who exactly is enemy here?

For those first audiences of Luke’s Gospel message, the enemy was likely the Roman Empire, which continued to oppress the Jewish people for hundreds of years after Jesus was lynched and rose from the dead. The empire had physically destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and nurtured an environment of systemic discrimination against the Jewish people.

Our enemies are different, I think it’s fair to assume. You might think of a particular person when you hear the word “enemy.” Maybe you think of something that is more political or more of a national enemy, like terrorists of any extreme or a country that tries to meddle in our national affairs. Maybe you have connections to our military and have specific ideas of who the enemy is, based on that experience.

A list of examples could go on for quite some time, but I think you get the picture. Expecting and trying to understand these differences, even just a little, is really helpful in understanding what Jesus is trying to get across in his teachings.

This is also important to keep in mind because verses from the Bible are sometimes misused.

This is in large part what I think Luther meant when he said the Bible was like a wax nose … you can twist it and reshape it and make it support pretty much anything you want or believe, especially if you take things out of context and even if it seems contradictory to Jesus’ overall teaching to love God above all other gods and to love one another as Jesus loves us.

Parts of today’s scripture have too often been used like this, and I’d like to touch on one part in particular. I’ve actually mentioned this one before here, but I think is bears repeating because it continues to be used to excuse abuse of people who don’t have much power … the poor, the hungry, the lowly who, you’ll remember, are also called God’s favored ones.

So, here I’m talking about the “turn the other cheek” reference. It doesn’t mean what our contemporary context might lead us to first perceive. It does not mean that the abused child or battered spouse or anyone suffering abuse should just buck up and take the next fist too.

Luke’s first listeners would have heard this as a call to stand up against that abuse. In this time, in Jesus’ time, there were certain cultural norms about striking another person.

So, let’s say I’m angry at someone and this person is my equal, we are on level ground in this life … they’ve made me mad or I perceive they have wronged me in some way, and so I want to strike them, challenge them. So here’s how I would do that. (Demonstrate.)

But, let’s say this person is not, by the world’s judgment, considered my equal. Like, I was a Roman soldier and they were a Jewish merchant living in occupied land. Again, I’m mad for some reason and want to strike this person, but according to that context, they are not my equal. So, I would strike them like this. (Demonstrate)

I, their enemy, have struck them on the cheek in a manner that says, you are beneath me. Get back in your place and stay there. It was a power play and much of the time, the Jewish people lived fearfully under this kind of  cruelty and abuse.

So Jesus tells them to turn the other cheek.

What does that force me to do?

Jesus is not saying here to take the next round of battering. Jesus is encouraging the person being struck to find ways to stand up and show themselves as equals, as who they truly are … God’s beloved who treat others with love and mercy and expect to be treated in that way too.

And so you can see, context matters when it comes to being serious students of this Holy Word. And so I started wondering … how might Jesus explain these things to us here on our level place? Some of it would probably sound very much the same I think, we can easily add our own nuances.

Listen! …. Jesus would start.

Love your enemy … your ex, your crabby neighbor, your political opponent, someone who is literally trying to hurt you.

As we were reminded in a reading I shared recently at our Love Fest, sometimes loving someone in the way Jesus is talking about here is to leave them alone. And it doesn’t mean we have to like them either. It does we mean that we strive to be kind and willing to look really hard to see God in their eyes.

Do good to those who hate you … the expectation of the one who is trolling you on social media or throwing shade about you at the local watering hole is that you too will respond as a shade throwing troll! Flip it, Jesus says.

Bless those who curse you … instead of responding in kind, say a prayer or a blessing for the one cursing your choice or decision, the one you wronged, the one you cut off in traffic, the one who had some tough love coming.

Pray for those who abuse you because they maybe more enslaved by their demons then you are by them. Pray for them because we realize in all this that sometimes we are the ones dealing with an enemy and sometimes we are the enemy.

When someone strikes out at you, remember who you are and plant your confidence there. Out of your abundance, respond and give generously and without judgment, without cries of “What’s my return on this?” or “What’s in this for me?” or “Okay, but you will owe me …”

This is world-shifting stuff Jesus is calling for, then and now. It is a call to love everyone – as in God’s Agape kind of love – and to mimic the mercy of God in all our interactions – it’s God-Mercy.  

Listen! Jesus says. This is how I am going to turn everything you all thought about power and salvation upside down and it is how you are going to continue this ministry in my name.

So what does this look like in a world where Agape-Love and God-Mercy still has the power and the tendency to turn our lives upside down?

One way of thinking about it that I thought was helpful (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3967) went like this:

By doing what Jesus says here – by pushing ourselves to extend Agape-Love and God-Mercy even to an enemy – we become extensions of God’s mercy and the hope of being part of a Jesus-following community for people who are set … for whatever reason … on a path of destruction.

And in doing so we experience a deepening of our own sense of Agape-Love and God-Mercy. And also, in extending this unique kind of love and mercy to all, our community becomes a model of God’s promise of steadfast lovingkindness to everyone and everything.

I liked that framing of what Jesus is teaching us here. I also thought of something we considered at the recent Winter Theological Education event our synod hosted in Marquette. Our presenter talked about how our worship liturgy is really our way of practicing how to be Jesus-following, God-fearing people. I think this applies to practicing Agape-Love and God-Mercy too.

What we do here in worship is our Christian Life Practice for how we behave, how we journey, out there … in our homes and workplaces, in our social circles and on our social media pages, with our friends and in the presence of enemies.

We learn how to offer Agape- Love and God-Mercy out there when in here we …

… repent and forgive.

… when we center ourselves in the Word – in law and Gospel.

… when we sing together and learn how to harmonize and cooperate and unify ourselves through song.

We learn how to offer Agape- Love and God-Mercy out there when in here we …

… speak our daring Creed and say this is what I believe … in God the creator, in Jesus Christ who is God in flesh, and the Holy Spirit who makes God as close to me as my breath. This is what I would and eventually will die for.

We learn how to offer Agape- Love and God-Mercy out there when in here we …

… pray our Prayers of the People, speaking them with and connecting us to the mission of the wider church. They rise like burnt offerings to God’s ear.

…when we eat together at the level place of the Lord’s Supper and proclaim everyone is welcome and there is enough for everyone

… when we go from here, steeped in what it is to offer the world all the Agape-Love and God –Mercy we can muster.

This is a way of life and we are prepared well for God’s world. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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