February 24, 2019 Sermon
Old Testament Scripture: Genesis 45:3-11, 15
Joseph said to his brothers, "I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?" But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.
Then Joseph said to his brothers, "Come closer to me." And they came closer. He said, "I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, 'Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children's children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there--since there are five more years of famine to come--so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.'" And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
New Testament Scripture: 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."
Sermon: “ROI” Rev. David Hawkins
I feel like I should take a moment and explain the sermon title, ROI. In the investment world, I am told, one of the most important things to think about is the Return on Investment, which is expressed as a percentage of how much you pay in relationship to how much you get back. This allows you to compare various types of investments without looking at all the numbers, just the ROI.
The problem is, ROI can be manipulated to reflect certain biases, and cannot be entirely trusted. It can reflect a certain perspective, and can lead the unwary investor down a bad path.
And this is what Jesus is talking to us about today. He is warning us to be aware of our return on investment. What, or who, are we investing in? What are we expecting to receive in return? And, how much are we willing to risk?
Last week, we introduced the lesser known series of moral imperatives that some scholars have called the “Sermon on the Plains”, sort of like the “Sermon on the Mount” but with much more direct language, and an affirmation of God’s affection for the poor, the hungry, and the despised.
Today, we continue with that sermon, now moving from blessings and woes to actual behavior, and while I thought last week’s text was difficult, today’s scripture takes it to a whole new level, one that I am, frankly, not comfortable with at all.
I’m not comfortable with it, because it asks me to do things that I’m not sure are good for me, or for others. The commandments to turn the other cheek, to give even more to those who steal from you, is more than just hard for me, it makes people who are in abusive situations even more vulnerable, at least, that is how this passage has been interpreted in the past.
This scripture has been used by Church leaders to counsel women to stay in relationships in which they were battered. It has been used to create entire communities that were passive in the face of civil corruption and abuse of power. This scripture is the basis for Karl Marx critiquing Christianity for being the opiate of the masses, a sort of anesthesia of the soul, masking the reality of pain and injustice.
And I have to say that if we use this scripture to advise someone to abide in a situation that is hopeless or harmful, then Karl Marx was right, and we are participating in the abuse of someone in an already miserable relationship. That is not grace. That is not love. And that is not what Jesus meant, at least I just can’t believe that’s what Jesus meant when he said these things.
And it’s not just the part about turning the other cheek. I know that many of us have recently experienced someone coming into our house and stealing some of our most precious possessions. I know how you feel. For Karen’s 50th birthday last year, I found a beat up 50 year old English bicycle in Chicago, manufactured in Nottingham, about 70 miles from where Karen was born, the same year Karen was born, and I refurbished it, polished it up, and named it Betsy. Last Monday, Betsy was stolen, and I know that I’m just not in the mood to track down the thief and give him even more of my stuff. Here, take my piano! Take my motorcycle! I don’t think so.
So what do we do with this part of the Sermon on the Plains? How do we take Jesus’ words seriously in the face of what we know to be true about ourselves, and what has been done in the past with them? How do we apply these words to our lives, when we know that we run the risk of giving those who would do violence against us or others permission to do so?
For me, the only way to really invest in these commandments is to try to get to the heart of what Jesus is saying. Because I believe that is what Jesus is trying to do. Get to the heart of what is going on.
Last week, we talked about how this sermon was aimed at his disciples, and it especially targeted their attitudes toward the poor and the hungry. Jesus reminded them that simply feeding and helping are not enough, it was critical for the disciples to understand that God blessed the poor. That while compassion and generosity were good things, to help others out of a sense of superiority was in of itself a misunderstanding of who God is and what God wants.
Jesus didn’t want us to just help. He wanted us to realize that God had a preference for the poor and hungry and despised, and that we needed to adjust our attitude to reflect this preference.
And today, again, Jesus is going for the heart.
But this time, it’s not about how we feel about the poor and hungry. It’s about those who actually do us harm. And that ratchets up the stakes, doesn’t it? Before, he was asking us to think about how we view those less fortunate than us. Now, he’s asking us to examine our hearts about the way we think about those who abuse us.
And that’s hard. Maybe even impossible for some. It’s why we don’t allow the victims of crimes to conduct the trial and set sentence for their attackers. If it were up to victims, we’d have a hard time being objective. We don’t have much patience for careful investigations, for deliberate prosecutions. We want the thief caught and locked up, today. We want the rapist caught and castrated, today. We want the murderer caught, and executed, today.
And for Jesus, that is the problem. We don’t want justice, we want revenge, and that’s a different thing. Justice is communal, it is nuanced, it is based on what is good for everybody, it is objective. Revenge is private, it is personal, it is all about hate.
Justice and Revenge are two different things, and Jesus knows what lies at the heart of revenge. And that’s why Jesus talks us out of striking back, against attacking our attacker. It’s all about the heart. It’s all about love.
Now, that lays a gigantic responsibility on those who would call themselves disciples. Not just because we are called to check our hearts in the face of being personally attacked, but also because we are called to ensure that those who are experiencing injustice are given protection.
If we do not protect the most vulnerable among us, if we do not look out for the least, the abused, the persecuted, then they will either passively accept needless suffering, or strike back, to enact their own form of justice. And we will all suffer if we leave justice up to the victims.
And so, there’s a social reason for us to be careful with our hearts when it come to personal injury. But Jesus goes even deeper, and says, not only are we to turn the other cheek, we are to love those who hate us.
Love those who hate us. Love our enemies. Wish the best for them. Pray for them.
Yeah, I’m not so sure. A few months ago, one of the church’s bank accounts was illegally hacked, and 20,000 dollars was stolen. Fortunately, the bank decided to reimburse us the money, but I’m still not ready to pray for those who took it. At least, I’m not ready to pray in ways that would be pleasing to God. I’m still in a place of anger, bewilderment, and truth be told, revenge. I know where my heart is, and it is not hoping for the best for whoever took the money.
And that’s what makes this scripture so hard. Jesus is asking us, in the midst of being attacked, to show grace and forgiveness. He reminds us that being nice to those who are nice to us is nothing special, even the sinners do that. Being a disciple calls for something deeper, something bigger than expecting a return on our investment of niceness. It means forgiving when there is a reason to judge. It means loving when there is a reason to hate. It means showing grace when there is a reason to exact revenge.
In short, it means striving to be better than we are. It means flying in the face of what the world considers to be common sense. It means realizing that hate begets hate, revenge begets revenge, that an eye for an eye makes the world blind. It means letting go of anger, and finding a way to be at peace, even when the world is not fair, or just.
But it also means that we are called to advocate for those who are in need of justice, those who are in abusive situations, those who cannot defend themselves. Rather than advising them to love their enemies, we need to defend them against their enemies. Rather than advising them to simply accept their lot in life, work to make their lot better. Rather than telling them that God wants them to be miserable, work to lift their burdens, and give them the sort of relief that God promises all of us.
And this is hard. And this is dangerous. And this is countercultural. We live in a time when punching back, hard, is the expected response. We live in a time when advocating for the poor is mocked as being a social justice warrior. We live in a time when revenge, political, or economic is the goal, not reconciliation, not justice, not peace.
Jesus is reminding us that while we should not give in expectation of getting, we do receive back what we give. And if we give hate, we will receive hate. If we give revenge, we will receive revenge. Whatever we give to the world, we receive back, a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over.
If we invest in the kingdom of heaven, that’s what we are promised. If we invest in the kingdom of this world, that’s what we deserve.
We just have to decide what kind of return we are hoping to receive.