Sermons represent copyrighted material and are not to be reproduced, transcribed, or used in any form without the permission of Rev. Chris Moore or the speaker for that day.
The Impossible Gospel
Sometimes you have a sermon all prepared, an outline mapped out and some brilliant anecdotes to go along with it. And then sometimes your church moderator sends you an article from the New York Times…an op-ed she says reminds her about who we are as a church, and you read it, digest it and then hit delete on your keyboard.
It’s really an impossible task to write a good sermon about this text, which is part of a sermon itself, and a part of a sermon from Jesus, no less. It feels just as it’s impossible as the directives from this sermon and think about actually doing this in your life. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you? It’s a little hard to process. Is it any wonder that we tend to lean on other parts of the Bible, like the ones that we can use to justify the stuff we’re already doing?
This sermon on the plain starts with the Beatitudes, like “blessed are the peacemakers.” Beatitude comes from the Latin beatitudo, which means a state of blessedness or happiness. This is Jesus’ sermon on what makes for happiness. If you search for sermons today on what makes for happiness, you’ll find sermons about building a good marriage or the power of positive thinking. You might find a sermon on generosity or the benefits of volunteering your time, or taking care of your physical and mental health. And all of those would be accurate portrayals, to one degree or another, of what we think makes for happiness. And noneof them would be the alternative version of reality that Jesus preaches with these words. I can’t imagine that “judge not” or “give to everyone who begs from you” washed down any easier in Jesus’ day than it does now, for he is asking us to do things that are so against our nature. I never had to teach my boys to retaliate against a punch with another punch. It was natural. I not only had to teach them todo that, I had to actively teach them not to do that! Their built-in inclinationwas an eye for an eye. And who would argue that such a sentiment drives so many of the systems we create, from our criminal justice system, to our economic systems, to our approach to guns? We know how to treat enemies, or opponents, or “the competition,” which we often couch in the language of enemies, and it isn’t to love them. That seems counterproductive. We’re supposed to hate our enemies. That’s why they’re enemies, right? Why would pray for people who curse us and even, as our text this morning translated the Greek, for those for those who abuseus? That’s a harsh and unwelcome directive, even offensive. For many of us, even the idea of forgiving our abusers, much less praying for them, seems impossible.
The article that Bobbie sent to me was from David Brooks, a NYT columnist who often gives keen and typically atypical insight into events and situations in the world. This was one of his more reflective op-eds which began with this sentence: “I start with the pain.” He described his speeches all over the country where he laments the isolation and social fragmentation that he sees all around us. And he recounts how often people come to him to tell him of a child’s suicide or overdose and how helpless he feels to say anything to them that seems useful. But he knows that pain is real, and sees it in those parents, in the African-American woman in Greenville who is, “indignant because young black kids in her neighborhood face injustice just as gross as she did in 1953,” in the face of the Trump-supporting business man in Louisiana who silently clenches his fists in rage as guests at a dinner party disparage his whole way of life.
Wait, what was that last one, pastor? Are you really going to make a comparison between an African-American woman’s pain over injustice and a Trump supporter feeling a little attacked? Well, no I’m not. David Brooks is, though. And when I first read it I rolled my eyes and tried to keep from disparaging the rest of the article because of that one line.
But then, a couple of days later, I was reflecting on the passage from Luke, this sermon on the plain, and the words of Jesus convicted my own heart from 2000 years away. Why would Jesus give us these impossible words? Why would he set us so against things that seem to come naturally to us? Surely he had been human long enough to have these feelings himself – the selfishness, the inclination for vengeance, the tendency to strike back, blow for blow? Did he say it just to be difficult, so that we might understand that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle?
I wanted to toss the article after that line from Brooks because I thought, at least in my gut, that a Trump supporter wasn’t worth my compassion, or even my listening. After all, they don’t listen very well, and their “way of life” I see as racist, misogynistic and homophobic. So why listen to them, I could hear myself say in my head, they are my enemy. I reveled in that feeling, like I was right and justified and moral. And then I remembered the passage for this grand sermon I was working on.
Dang it, Jesus. You really are exasperating.
Brooks went on to describe what he called a “social renaissance” going on all around us. It works against the breakdown of healthy connection to one another, transforming our inability to see the full dignity of each other and healing the culture of fear, distrust, tribalism, and shame that has grown so greatly.
He described a project from the Aspen Institute called Weave: The Social Fabric Project. It is a project that thinks globally, but acts locally, enabling community volunteers called “weavers” who engage dozens of different ways to impact the social fabric. The idea is that people, just everyday people who have subscribed to the idea of being a “weaver”, show deep hospitality in whatever they do, they keep showing up and being a place of welcome and relationship and community, where they are with what they have. While the world prizes and teaches and glorifies hyper-individualism, they swim against the stream. We are broken, the philosophy of Weave goes, and we need one another to survive. “We don’t do things for people”, a woman working with teenagers in New Orleans said, “We don’t do things to people. We do things withpeople.”
The people involved in this project, Brooks writes, “are not motivated by” money, power or status. They, “want to live in right relation with others and to serve the community good.” “We don’t just have a sociological problem”, he writes, “we have a moral problem.”
What do we think that Jesus was up to when he preached at these people gathered somewhere on a level field, listening to him share his wisdom? What do we imagine he is pointing us towards when he instructs us to offer our other cheek to those who have struck us, to give not only our coat to someone who asks, but our shirt, also? Why does he tell us to give to all who beg, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, to love our enemies, to do good and to lend from what we have, expecting nothing in return if not to make a moral claim to us, if not to weave the world back together by first changing our own hearts?
And here’s where this gets real. I can’t do this. I couldn’t even read a single article without judging, tearing apart social fabric by protesting people who judged to be tearing apart social fabric. It makes me wonder, did Jesus say these impossible things expecting us to somehow rise to the to impossible? Or did he say the impossible to convey to us that the world is constantly being made and re-made, that we’re actually partof creating the world with each and every encounter, and the more of those that are built on love, the more in which we at least reach for compassion and understanding, the better the world will be?
Here’s what I know. My strategies only create a world fit for people who are pretty much like me, which is why it makes sense for me to subject myself to Jesus’ strategies, to literally surrender to them sometimes, not as an act demanding my absolute perfection, but as an objective, as my goal, as my orientation. When Jesus says, “My yoke is easy, my burden is light,” it’s because he’s trying to rewire us from just another set of laws requiring our blameless adherence, to our own awareness. I don’t think that Jesus wants us to be paralyzed into inaction with impossible tasks. I think he is asking us in this difficult sermon to keep refocusing our eyes on the far horizon, to keep our ears open to listen for goodness and hope, and to sustain our hearts with grace, clinging to it like a piece of driftwood in a storm. He is telling us to return, again and again, to the spiritual practice, the difficult work of showing hospitality and welcome, the slow pull of building relationship and community…to trust in the Love and the Grace of God to weave us all together.
It’s why I think he follows as he does all these impossible tasks with an equally impossible equation – we will be judged by the same measure with which we judge, condemned by the same tools with which we condemn, forgiven in equal measure to our forgiveness, and we’ll find life where we give life. It’s an impossible thing for meto do, which is precisely his point, I think…to take the burden of willing the world into perfection off the shoulders of we humans who cannot possibly reach that goal and place it instead where it belongs…with God, for whom the impossible ispossible.