“Midrash #5: Loving Right”
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
October 29, 2017
University Baptist Church
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,[a] what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
On this day when so many churches across the world celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s challenge to the church to live into its highest ideals, let’s look a the history and necessity of reform. This whole worship theme of “Reversals” is in response to the Gospel challenge to live nad love right. And sometimes that means reversing course.
The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ reformation sermon. It’s his attempt to remind the people to focus not so much on the old rulebook understanding of the Bible. It’s his way of saying, “let’s look at the big picture.” And guess what is right in the center of it—love. You have heard it said, “Love your friends and hate your enemies. But I say to you, love right. Don’t just love conveniently, politically. But love bravely. Love audaciously. Love even when the stakes are high…because the stakes are high. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” This is a tall order and yet it is central to God’s overarching plan. You see in the old days when they were at war, it was practical to love your friends. Not just like them but to really love your friends. That meant looking out for them and making sure that they were healthy and safe. Listen to them. Hold them fast when they are hurting. Support them and protect them from foes hear and far.
Now this “hate your enemies” thing was probably a reference in scripture to a specific instance in a wartime situation. But the problem was that it became universalized so that the Biblical understanding of the world became one where there are insiders and outsiders. If there are always enemies out there, then we are never safe. Jesus wants us to be better than that. If we are to truly survive as a people we need to transform our enemies in to friends. And the first step is to love them in spite of themselves. That’s harder work and it’s the kind of reform that Jesus was about. What if the reforms in our world were about loving right?
We know that rivers of reform have flowed through the Christian church. Some of them were very good. Some of them were not so good. Let me take you through just a short survey of some of the reforms the church has witnessed over the years. Each one of these tried to redefine what it meant to be the church.
The early churches were house churches each with their own flavor, priorities, rituals and culture. They even had different scriptures. But as the church grew, they had trouble dealing with the inherent differences of each community. Some felt that they needed unity. So the power brokers sought out the best scriptures, the best practices, the most popular forms of Christianity and Canonized them, which was great if you were on the right side of orthodoxy. But if you were on the wrong side, like the Gnostics and the churches with women in leadership and the churches that preferred Thomas’ Gospel or Judas’ Gospel to that of John, you were deemed heretics, enemies, you were hated. They called your holy writings fake scripture.
In the year 350, the Roman Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity—well, he made Christianity legal and used it to win some battles. It transformed Christianity from a fringe movement that was suspicious of the military and anyone who would call himself King, to one that marched in lock step with the Empire. This form of Christianity still exists today in some places.
When the Roman Empire fell a few hundred years later, the Christians needed to find a new sense of identity. This is when the monastic movement began and people devoted themselves to a common community and a removal from the influence of the world which had forsaken them.
A few hundred years later, the Eastern and Western churches split from each other. The Eastern Church retained a more mystical belief system while the Western church was all about the rules. In the early 11th century, Anselm came up with the theology of Substitutionary Atonement, which the Western church embraced. Paradise changed from something we built in this world to something we received after death. This is also around the time that the Crucifix appeared for the first time in Christian art, depicting a dead Jesus. The crusades followed, fueled by a belief system that said you needed to kill or be killed for God’s glory. We still have shades of this, too.
In the 1300’s the printing press brought the scriptures into people’s hands for the first time. Wycliffe and others translated and printed the Bible and people began to see that there might need to be some changes. People read, perhaps for the first time, the Sermon on the Mount. By the time Martin Luther nailed his theses to the church door in the early 1500’s the reforms were already under way. The first Baptist churches formed in the 1500’s, insisting on believer’s baptism and a refusal to fight in the military. Other protesting groups separated themselves from the mother church resulting in what we call the Protestant Reformation. Remember that this all happened as Columbus began invading the Americas bringing back inconvenient stories of the complexity of the world.
The American Revolution, founded on principles of religious liberty, squandered that birthright as they subjugated the Native peoples in their quest for expansion. The Civil War was in part a religious war in that it was fought in part over how one defined a human being, slave or free. The industrial revolution, the suffrage movement, the holocaust and the reforms that resulted from it, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, these are all reforms that have defined and influenced our lives
Phyllis Tickle wrote a book entitled, “A Rummage Sale Every 500 Years”. She traced the history of the church for the last two millennia and discovered that major shifts happened every 500 years. She thinks that we’re in for a new shift. There is increasing suspicion about church institutions, let alone denominations (the power brokers of the last century). The Religious Right have embraced a president who stands against darn near everything that Jesus stood for. Maybe it’s time for another garage sale—where you get rid of the things you don’t find useful and rediscover things that have been tucked away for too long. Phyllis Tickle says that after each one of these “garage sales”, what emerges is a more vital form of Christianity with more depth and range. I wonder what this will look like. Hopefully loving right will be in its core beliefs and practice system.
You know for each reform there is an equal and powerful counter-reform.
When the Re-imagining Conference happened 25 years ago, several churches initiated wonderful reforms. But people also lost their jobs because of their participation in such an event that was deemed heretical. There’s a celebration of that work starting next week.
When the Catholic liberation theologians called upon the people to rise up against powers of injustice, Pope John Paul II silenced the loudest and most creative voices. Over his 25 years of leadership, one by one, liberationist cardinals and archbishops were replaced by more conservative ones. Now there are a scarce few balancing voices of descent amongst the church hierarchy. And yet, they selected Pope Francis who is enacting sweeping reforms.
When the Episcopal Church and the ELCA voted to more publicly welcome the LGBT community, their dissenters threatening to form their own denominations in protest. The same thing is happening in the Methodist Church. This is a page out of the Baptist playbook. There are 80 Baptist denominations in the US and 360 worldwide. We grow by splitting.
How about the liturgical reform that has taken place over the past few decades? You know what I’m talking about. It’s the churches that have done market surveys to find the key to church growth—as if that is the only reason churches exist. They realized that churches need lots of space. The churches shouldn’t look too churchy or sound too churchy. Get rid of the organ. Get rid of the pews and replace them with stadium seating for the “show.” Get rid of the hymnbooks. Project things on the wall, get people to lift up their heads. To maximize the growth opportunities, make sure there is a big enough space—so what if it looks like a big box store, folks spend more time there than in church, so they’ll feel right at home. And make sure there’s enough parking, that you give the people what they want and that you keep the message positive.
Now some of those things are good (especially the parking part), and yet we find people moving back to buildings that look like churches. They find that the seven-eleven songs didn’t fit with them, and that their kids didn’t like the aging baby-boomer music.
Many churches like us have made reforms in their liturgical life. A few decades ago, we changed our version of the Lord’s Prayer to include “our Mother” in addition to “our Father”. We use inclusive language to honor the complexity of our lives. Current reforms show an openness of churches to do things we have been doing for years, like being welcoming and Affirming of all people, like celebrating women in leadership, like removing the flag from the sanctuary so that we are clear which God we follow—like offering our building as a sanctuary for those threatened with deportation. It’s how we love right. The so-called “emergent” or “missional” churches are discovering social justice as a religious priority, we welcome and yet wonder why this seems so radical.
It’s time for religious people to reclaim their moral center. Don’t build walls. Tear them down. Don’t demonize people who disagree, but creatively find a way to be someone that someone else trusts to always tell the truth in love.
I think it’s well time to reform ourselves back to living a Sermon on the Mount type of life. The culmination of the 14 reversals in the Sermon on the Mount is this statement, “You have heard it said, Love your friends and hate your enemies. But I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Love right. Love in a way that is redemptive. And here’s the real kicker, love someone regardless of what they do, how they react, or how evil they act. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Pray for them. Not the manipulative prayer that they will be punished or that calamity will befall them. But pray for their well-being. It may not change them, but it will change you. And that’s the important thing. Gandhi said that when you embrace this kind of lifestyle, it will incite ridicule and persecution for a while But since it has moral backing, it can’t help but win in the long run. He said, “First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. Then they fight against you. Then you win.” You win because as Martin Luther King said, “the arc of history is long but it bends toward justice.”
Good lasting reforms are about loving right. I’m struck by a story that came up in a recent book entitled, “The Book of Joy.” The book documents a week of conversation between Bishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. Jim Ketcham says it’s full of powerful, mind-blowing stuff. One story the Dalai Lama tells to illustrate the Buddhist concept of "compassion for all sentient beings" starts the night the Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet. The Chinese army was approaching and thousands of Tibetans had rallied to surround the Dalai Lama's palace. Fearing they would all risk death to protect him, he secretly left in disguise that night with a very small group of advisors. One of his elder advisors, a favorite, remained and was arrested by the Chinese and sentenced to 16 years of hard labor. He served that term, with no winter clothing provided, no heat, very little food or water and no relief from the heat of summer. He was dressed in rags. Almost every day he was interrogated and he was frequently tortured or physically abused by the Chinese.
Upon completion of his sentence, he was released and he eventually made his way to India, where the Dalai Lama lives. When they finally met again they embraced and sat down for a talk. The Dalai Lama said "You must have often feared for your life." "Oh, I was afraid every day, but what I was most afraid of was losing my compassion for my captors."
You have heard it said, love your friends and hate your enemies, but I say to you. Love right. Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Be better than the world. Reverse course. Love in such a way that we will reform our very lives. Re-form them in the model of Jesus. Re-form them to pursue a better path. Re-form our lives so that all and I mean all will have life and have it abundantly. Re-form our lives in God’s image. Love right.
As we offer ourselves and receive our morning offering, let’s sing of that right-loving model by joining in the hymn “what wondrous love is this”.