Luke 6:27-38: The Suffering Underneath

Seventh Sunday After Epiphany, February 24, 2019 audio

Gospel Lesson: Luke 6:27-38

But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.

The other day, I picked up my copy of Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospel and began reading it. I try to read through the Bible every year, and this year I’m getting a late start with The Cotton Patch Gospel. In case you don’t know, The Cotton Patch Gospel is a rendering of a good deal of the New Testament into Southern vernacular. It is full of beautiful, familiar turns of phrases, like this rendering of the angel’s warning to Mary and Joseph to flee to Egypt: “Get movin’, and take your wife and baby and highball it to Mexico.” Its author, Clarence Jordan, was the founder of Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia. He, his wife, their children, and the folks who lived with them created the community in 1942 as a demonstration of what Christian community could and should be. They called it “a demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God.” They observed practices like sharing their faith and their resources, farming the land in ways that preserved and conserved natural resources, paying white and black farm workers a fair and equal wage, and sharing meals at a racially integrated table. Koinonia Farm is also where Habitat for Humanity was born.

I will get back to Koinonia Farm in a little bit, but the thing about picking up my copy of The Cotton Patch Gospel that I enjoyed so much was finding these words to a hymn which I’m using as a bookmark [show the bookmark]. Maybe you recognize it. It was the hymn that Erma passed out to us at last year’s Maundy Thursday service in the fellowship hall. It’s called “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love.” It was such an appropriate gift for Maundy Thursday, because that is the day that Jesus said to his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” “Maundy” means “commandment” and the commandment we remember on that day is to love one another.

The hymn puts this commandment into a prayer for unity of Spirit among Christians:

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
And we pray that our unity will one day be restored
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love

“Love one another” might be hardest commandment Jesus ever gave his disciples. When my pastor Jody Welker would welcome new members into the church, he used to say, “We promise to be just as functional as your own family.” And we all know how hard it can be to love family sometimes! In the words of the hymn, the defining characteristic of Christian community is love. And yet in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus goes a step further and says,

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. . . . But love your enemies . . . . Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” How in the world are we supposed to do that when loving each other can be so hard?

Way back thousands of years ago—perhaps even 1500 years before Jesus told his disciples not only to love each other, but to love our enemies—Moses instructed the Israelites on the importance of obeying God’s commandments as they prepared to cross the Jordan. He said to them:

Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 14 No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.  –Deuteronomy 30:11-14

Psalm 37 tells us not to be fretful or envious or angry because of those who oppose us, but to “Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently for him.”

What I see and hear in Jesus’ teachings and in those of Moses and the Psalmist is the assumption that we are far more resourceful than we imagine ourselves to be. What is needed in times of adversity or difficulty is to allow ourselves the time and the spaciousness to access the love, the goodness, the generosity, and the mercy that is already inside us—already in our mouths and in our hearts—by virtue of being created in the image of a loving, good, generous, and merciful God. What is needed is to cultivate a facility with love that is stronger than our facility with hate.

You’ve heard the expression “to push someone’s buttons,” right? If someone can push your buttons, it means they have figured out how to fire a well-practiced neurological path through your brain. When a button is pushed, it’s almost like a fire burning up a fuse through your brain that explodes in anger. In fact, when Psalm 37 tells us not to “fret” because of the wicked, the Hebrew word translated “fret”—Charah—means to burn, to scorch, to be incensed. To respond to an enemy with hatred or anger is to burn in a flash of fire.

What are some of your buttons? One of mine has to do with encountering poorly-written technical documentation. Several years ago there was a painful and devastating series of layoffs at the company where I work as a technical writer. The layoffs hit the tech writing community especially hard. I watched helplessly as my closest friends at the company lost their jobs one by one: Gary in March, Bruce in April, John in May. I went to work every day feeling angry and vulnerable: when would I lose my job? What would I do next? How would I cope? The jobs went to China where the workers’ wages are significantly less than American wages. Somehow I managed to keep my job, first of all by moving to the software test department and then by moving back into technical writing when managers began to see the quality of the writing slip. The Chinese writers have excellent English, but they do not have native fluency so they lack idiomatic expression. So now I’m back working on documentation that was entrusted to non-native speakers for three years. Sometimes when I see bad grammar or non-idiomatic expressions or paragraphs with garbled logic, it triggers those old feelings of grief for my friends and vulnerability for myself. And before I know it, I’m burning up with anger.

What is needed to cultivate love for our enemies, to be good and generous toward people who push our buttons, to be merciful with people who just burn us up is to rewire those hair-trigger neurological pathways. One of the best ways I have learned to do that is through meditation: resting in the image of God in which we are all created, calling up that Word that is in our mouths and in our hearts.

One of my meditation teachers, Jack Kornfield, writes:

“The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”

“Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently for him.”

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. . . . Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over.”

So, on the day that I transferred to the test department, I had to meet with the Chinese writers to transfer my work to them. I don’t remember if I meditated beforehand or how I prepared myself for that meeting. But what I do remember is that somehow in that conversation I realized that my grief and vulnerability, my friends’ job losses, my own loss of writing work had nothing at all to do with these writers. In fact, if it were their jobs that were being moved to the US, they would suffer just as much as my friends had. And somehow, imagining their suffering helped me to see that all they wanted was to be successful at their work, to understand what was expected of them, and to be equipped to do as good a job as they could. Being able to imagine their suffering and to touch that common humanity helped me also touch some measure of love, goodness, generosity, mercy. It was not their fault that I or my friends had suffered. If it were them instead of us, they would suffer just as much.

But my small conversion from hatred to . . . well if not love, at least tolerance . . . of the Chinese writers was nothing compared to Clarence Jordan and the folks who were crossing racial boundaries at Koinonia Farm. As I read in the Christian Century not too long ago,

“Jordan believed that the only way authentic change could transpire in southern race relations was as a result of ‘incarnational evangelism,’ and that meant making Christian truth concrete in community lived and shared with the excluded and the oppressed.”

. . . Jordan paid a high price. He endured the scorn of neighbors, pressure from the Klan, visits and interrogations from the FBI, the shooting and beating of members of Koinonia, [shots fired on children at play on the farm,] orchard trees chopped down, and roadside markets blown up.

When asked why members of Koinonia didn’t just pack up and relocate . . . Jordan answered: “We have too many enemies to leave them. The redemptive love of God must break through.”

What Jordan was working for was not just a demonstration patch for the kingdom of God, but for God to transform the suffering of hatred, of curses, and of abuse. What Jordan saw underneath the violence and racism and ostracism of his enemies was the kind of suffering that only the Word of God can transform. In creating a community that transcended the racism of his time, Clarence Jordan understood that God’s love would pass through that community and break into the community of violence and hatred around them. It took a long time, but he and the members of Koinonia Farm were willing to be still and wait patiently on the Lord.

The Word is very close to us. It is in our mouths and in our hearts. What is needed in times of difficulty or adversity is to be able to access that Word more easily than we access hatred. So cultivate the stillness to know that you—and everyone, even your enemies—are created in the image of a loving, good, generous, and merciful God. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love. Amen.