Generous and Gracious

The Rev. Amy Hodges Morehous
Epiphany 7, Year A
Church of the Ascension
February 20, 2011

We have been talking for several Sundays about Christ’s call to us in the Sermon on the Mount. Christ’s call to us to do the impossible, as Fr. Brett pointed out last week. And now we get this from Jesus. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Well, that seems simple.

“Be perfect." Except the Greek doesn’t actually mean “without imperfection” or “without flaw.” Perfect, in that sense, is not what Jesus is asking here. God does not expect flawlessness of any of us. Perfect here means whole, or complete. Eugene Peterson, in his artful paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, says it like this: “In a word, what I’m saying is: Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” Generously and graciously.

So, that’s a relief, isn’t it? Generous, and gracious. We can do that - we’re Southern. So much easier than that ideal of perfection. So, that must be true for this whole passage...we only need to look at it differently, to understand it, to make it more palatable to our daily lives. We just need a more accurate translation. Right?

Because when Jesus says, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you,” he doesn’t actually mean “Love your enemies,” right? He wouldn’t ask us to do something so impossible, would he? What kind of people does he think we are?

Well, he thinks we are God’s people. And yes, Jesus does mean every word of that sentence. “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”

As I was preparing for this sermon, I thought of the people I really loathed the most. So I’m going to give you a moment to do the same. I want you to think of someone who sent you right around the bend. Someone for whom you had nothing but bad feeling. Take a minute, and think of that person, or that group of people.

Okay - have them in mind? Hold on to them - I’m not going to make you reveal it to anyone else, but hold on to the image of that person for a minute.

I’ll tell you the first group of people that came to mind for me - the first group of people I was conscious of hating. When I was in first grade, I rode the school bus for the first time. I was the youngest kid on my route, and when I was growing up, everyone rode the bus together - first graders on up to high school. For whatever reason, I became the target of abuse from several kids on that bus - all of them much bigger kids than me. One morning, I got on the bus only to find it totally empty. It was the best day ever - my own bus! No one there to push me, or tease me for being quiet, or make fun of my clothes. I was elated. I began walking toward a seat, when suddenly the whole bus erupted. They all popped out at once and shouted “Boo!” in their loudest voices. They had all - every single one of them - hidden behind their seats, waiting to scare the pants off me. Well, it worked. I was six years old, and I can still taste in the back of my throat how terrified I was in that moment. That terror turned into anger, and that anger to hatred. I remember hoping that someone else made them feel as bad as they had me. I think I spent the whole ride to school praying to God that they would all get run over by the bus the next day.

Now, to my adult eyes, that seems like a silly grievance to remember so vividly, more than thirty years later. I long ago stopped hoping that those people - whose names I don’t even remember - would die, preferably in a messy and embarrassing ways. I don’t actively wish them ill. I don’t even hope that someday they really get what’s coming to them. I can tell that story now, with adult eyes, and know it was about power. Those kids had power because they were bigger, and stronger, and older. They chose to use that power to intimidate and bully me. In doing so, they wounded all of us. In making me feel like less than a full person, they wounded me, but they also wounded themselves, by perpetuating something ugly and dark.

So where are your wounds? We all carry them. Where is the place where someone has hurt you, perhaps the person you thought of before? Let me tell you a secret - that wound can be one of your places of greatest strength, if it isn’t poisoned by hatred. Because what Jesus is saying here, above all else, is that love is more powerful than hate. Not passive acceptance, not avoidance, but love. Jesus doesn’t say, “when someone strikes you on the cheek, then turn and run away.” This is not the “Doormat Gospel,” wherein we accept whatever treatment we are given in weakness. This is “Don’t fall into another person’s hatred and respond in kind.” We are called to the strength of love, and not the weakness of hatred.

We, the people of God, created in God’s image, are called to love that which is unlovable. And that, friends, is one of the most impossible things to comprehend. Because we know from our own lives, and from history how very unlovable the people in the world can be.

Last year, Dave and I traveled to Germany, to Munich. While there, we visited Dachau. If you don’t know that name, it’s the place of the first concentration camp developed by the Nazis. It opened in 1933 to house political prisoners, and became the prototype for all the camps to come. Auschwitz, Birgen-Belsen, Birkenau...all made possible by the research and work done at Dachau.

Dachau itself is a suburb of Munich, now. And it’s a fairly well-off one. If you visit there, you drive down tree-lined streets full of comfortable houses. It’s a little disconcerting, because it’s a little like someone dropped a concentration camp into the middle of Farragut.

So we went, and we visited the exhibits. And we stood in one of the reconstructed barracks in which people were warehoused, stacked on top of one another as if they were animals. On liberation of Dachau in 1945, American troops found more than 32,000 prisoners in a camp built to hold 5000. The death rate at liberation approached 200 people per day, mostly from starvation and typhus. Like all people who visit there, we saw the iron bars, and the gun turrets and the electric fences, and the crematorium and we contemplated how one group of people could treat another group of people like they were like so much dust beneath their feet. I stood in the middle of the camp, listening to the breeze rustle the tall trees that line the main path, and thought, “Holy God, how could you possibly love your children, knowing what we are capable of doing to one another?”

Because that is the true miracle. It is a miracle that God’s love for each of us is stronger than any human hatred. No matter what we have done, God’s love is constant. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after the fall of apartheid. As chair, he listened for weeks to people who had suffered excruciating losses, and to people who had committed heinous and terrible crimes. In later years, he visited Rwanda after the massacre of more than half a million people, and said he could not pray, only stand and weep. He has seen and heard more than most how dark the depths of the human soul can be.

Archbishop Tutu says, “As we (on the commission) listened to accounts of truly monstrous deeds of torture and cruelty, it would’ve been easy to dismiss the perpetrators as monsters because their deeds were truly monstrous. But we are reminded that God’s love is not cut off from anyone. When we proclaim that someone is subhuman, we not only remove from them the possibility of change and repentance, we also remove from them moral responsibility. We cannot condemn anyone to being irredeemable. ...God does not give up on you or on anyone for God loves you now and will always love you. Whether we are good or bad, God’s love is unchanging and unchangeable.”

Well, that goes against everything we think is fair, doesn’t it? Whether we are good or bad, God loves us all just the same. You mean all the good I’ve done doesn’t make me more worthy in God’s eyes? I’m not racking up credits for good deeds in heaven? Well, what kind of faith is that?

That is faith in a God of grace. That is faith in a God who creates each of us in God’s image. Not just some of us...not just the nice people, but the nasty ones too. That is the staggering enormity of God’s grace. God loves that whole busload of people that my six-year-old self loathed and wanted to wipe off the face of the earth just as much as he loves me.

What kind of people are we, that Christ asks us to love our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us? We are the followers of a crucified and resurrected Christ, and we are a people of second chances, of transformation and redemption. We are a people who believe in an incarnated Savior who forgave his tormentors, and who interceded for them even as they tortured and mocked him. We believe in the Savior who spoke to the thief on the cross beside him, who forgave him when he repented, and promised to see him again that day in Paradise. We are called to believe that transformation is possible - in our hearts and in our lives, and in those of all God’s people.

Because we believe in a God of love, who loves us even when we are unlovable, may we respond to others not with hatred that corrupts, not with guilt that paralyzes, but with generosity of spirit, and graciousness of heart. May we be given the strength to respond to hatred with love, out of God’s great love for us. And may we always “live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward” each of us.

Amen.

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