Fourth Sunday after Trinity, June 23rd, Year of Our + Lord 2013
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
Love and Forgiveness for Enemies – Romans 12:14-21, Luke 6:36-42
I really wanted the enemy to lose... Our recent vacation/pick-up-Madeline-at-college trip was great fun, biking over hill and through forest during the days, and, every other night, watching the NBA finals in our motel rooms. If you’re not a basketball fan, just know that the enemy, the bad guys, the Miami Heat, narrowly defeated the good guys, the San Antonio Spurs, four games to three, a hard fought, seven game war. The two teams battled fiercely, a physical, intense series.
I really wanted San Antonio to defeat the enemy. I was quite crestfallen when it became clear in the last few seconds that Miami would not be denied. I felt bitterly defeated, along with Tim Duncan and the rest of the Spurs players, after coming so close, nearly winning the series on Tuesday in Game 6, but then falling short in the end on Thursday, defeated, vanquished by the persecutors in red and black.
But then, as soon as the final buzzer sounded, everything changed. Tim Duncan and Lebron James, enemies moments earlier, fighting each other with all their might and guile, were hugging and exchanging congratulations. Gregg Popovich, the Spurs gnarly gnome of a coach, laughed and smiled as he shook hands and hugged with Eric Spoelstra, the wunderkind coach of the Heat who looks like he’s 23. All the players from both teams were exchanging pleasantries, and saying nice things about each other to TV interviewers. Where was the anger, the animosity, the fierce battle cries that had punctuated the last two weeks? What kind of enemies are they?
They aren’t really enemies. By and large, the players on the Spurs and Heat are friends, competitors, yes, but also fellow professionals, who might find themselves teammates in a future season. They are not real enemies, because they are playing a game. So they could easily smile and congratulate after the game, because despite how much they each wanted to win, they realize they are grown men blessed to make their living playing a game.
Life is not a game. And getting along with your enemies in real life isn’t so easy, is it? Some days go fine, but not all of them. And when life is a struggle, with everyone against you, when you feel someone, or a group of someones, is persecuting you unjustly, turning around and making nice with them feels awful. At least it does to me.
And yet, today we are called to do much more than just make nice after losing a game. Today we are called to bless, to do good, to turn the other cheek to the wicked people who are slapping us in the face, who are talking about us, running our name into the dirt, behind our back, or maybe right to our faces. Today we are called to forgive, and do good to those who persecute us, called to rise above anger and hatred, and love our enemies. And we are called to do so by no less an authority than the Apostle Paul:
Repay no one evil for evil, Paul instructs, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." To the contrary, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
That last bit from Paul is over the top, don’t you think? After removing revenge and fighting back against your enemy from your list of options as a Christian, Paul goes on to tell you to instead do good to him, to help your enemy in his needs, in order to heap burning coals on his head. That is, your acts of kindness will be an offense to him, done, as they are, in righteousness and innocence and love. Oh great. Thanks Paul. First you say I can’t fight back, then you tell me to get myself killed. Because if my enemy doesn’t kill me with his first attack, his anger at my good deeds done in return, his anger at my heaping burning coals on his head, will certainly make it all the more likely he will come after me harder the next time. Overcoming evil with good seems to like a good way to get punched in the nose, or worse.
Paul’s way of Christian living is tough, but Jesus, the Master, speaks an even more difficult Word. For Jesus reminds us how often the enemies who really trouble us are the ones we create, when we mistreat our brothers and sisters. When homicide detectives start investigating a murder, the first suspects they consider are always the family members, because statistically, family members commit most murders. So also with lesser offenses – the saddest part of human existence is that our daily enemies are usually the people we should be closest to. All too often we make ourselves enemies, by trying to fix each other. We really do love each other, and want the best for our loved ones. And yet, how often do we hurt the ones we love most of all, by trying to fix them? And so Jesus says, Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,' when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite.
My real battles, most days anyway, come not from far away, from some strange country or dangerous neighborhood. No, they come from hurt people who have lashed out because I took it upon myself to help them fix some deficiency I see in their life. “Spend our money more carefully, honey.” “Brother, if you’d just eat better and get some exercise, you’d be a lot healthier and happier.” “Why don’t you get serious about your life, son?” “Here, friend, let me show you how to do it right.” Pretty soon I can’t understand why everyone close to me has daggers in their eyes, and pain in their expression whenever I come in the room.
Jesus suggests a solution to this problem of making enemies out of brothers. “You hypocrite,” He says, “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother's eye.” In other words, would-be physician, heal thyself; then you can feel free to fix your brother. Only one problem with that, though. If I take the time to really examine myself, if I truly try to get the log of sin and failure out of my own eye, I’ll never get around to fixing my brother, because I can’t fix myself. I can no more truly correct my own sins than I can will myself to be an NBA basketball player. I can get better at basketball, but I can’t make myself good enough to play for the Spurs. I’m simply don’t have it in me. Even more, I can sin less, outwardly at least, but I can’t stop being a sinner.
Which begins to bring us to the heart of the matter, for both Paul and Jesus. There are real enemies out there, terrorists and criminals and people bent on destruction. And God has instituted numerous offices, numerous vocations whose calling it is to restrain their violence, like our elected leaders, our police, our military. And you, as a brother, a neighbor, a father, a mother, may also find yourself, from time to time, called to fight evil, in order to protect your loved ones. These difficult teachings about doing good to our enemies do not mean that we must resign ourselves to living in chaos and watching our loved ones suffer. Just remember that defending someone from evil and avenging ourselves are two very different things. And as Christians, vengeance is not ours to enact, because God reserves vengeance to Himself, since the Avenger must be innocent.
Which brings us to the heart of the matter for you personally, the heart of the matter that God needs to help you realize again today, which is that you have no right to protest your innocence. You have no leg to stand on for pointing out your righteousness, or someone else’s wickedness. For the log in your eye is your sinful nature, and the myriad sins you commit. From these you can never free yourself. Even worse, your sinful nature and your sins make you the enemy of God.
All of our readings today are about Christian living, about how you and I as baptized believers in Christ are to conduct ourselves in our daily lives. This is the bit new members and confirmands promise – to live a godly life in accordance with God’s Word. Every communicant member here has made this same promise. But the great irony, the great paradox of Christian living is this: the beginning of living a godly life is confessing that you cannot do it. You must do it, for God requires it. Those who refuse to forgive, those who refuse to love their enemies and show mercy to the merciless are subject to God’s condemnation. Jesus has a word for those who do not clean up their own mess before advising another on how to clean up theirs. He calls them hypocrites, false judges, deserving to be cast out of God’s presence. And so, as soon we begin trying to live the Christian life, we end up terrified that we do not truly belong to Christ, for we fail at living as we should. Wretched sinners we are, finding our best efforts at loving our enemies, or even just our friends, to be full of hidden motives and self-serving purposes. How can we be saved?
Associate with the lowly, says Paul. Before the Apostle launches into describing how Christians are to do good to their enemies, he reminds us to not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. And never be conceited. This sounds a bit like another famous passage from Paul, where he says: Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.
What does it mean to be lowly? It is to acknowledge your sinfulness, your complete unworthiness, before God. And this, Jesus did for you. For the lowly one, the most humble person ever, is Christ Jesus. Indeed Jesus, the most righteous one, the most worthy, the eternal glory of the Father, the only begotten Son of God, made Himself lowly, made Himself to be sin, taking on the role of the unworthy sinner, fulfilling it completely, to the end, to death on a cross, under His Father’s wrath. Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, so be of good cheer, because the sins of the world are completely avenged, in the suffering and death of Christ, for you. You are the enemy loved perfectly by your merciful Father. You are the brother with the log in your eye, which Jesus gently removes by the wood of His Cross. You are forgiven, of all your sins, in the blood of Jesus. Good has overcome evil, once and for all, in Christ Jesus our Lord.