February 20, 2022

"Still Listening"

Rev. Scott Landis

Luke 6:17-38

You have heard me say multiple times, the season of Epiphany is one where Jesus “reveals” or “enlightens” his disciples with his initial teachings. As we have pondered over these Sundays in Epiphany, Jesus’ words have not always been easy to digest. Today is no different. In fact, he continues his “Sermon on the Plain” as it is referred to in Luke with a simple check-in with his disciples to see whether they are grasping what he is offering. What Eugene Peterson translates as “To you who are ready for the truth,” might more simply be put, “to you who are still listening.” Evidently some had that glazed over look — a look that preachers know all too well. [Pause]

I shouldn’t give away my secrets but we preachers have various techniques to keep people interested in that which WE think are important words to hear. You can either ramp up the volume (or go silent), or provide a visual aid, use an illustration, tell a story, or offer a quote. Or you can do what Jesus did in his sermon – say the most outlandish thing and see how it is received.

He checked-in with the crowd because he had already said some pretty controversial things, but now he moved in with the zinger. “To you who are ready for the Truth or To you who are still listening, I say this:

Love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst.
When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer for that person.
If someone slaps you on the face, stand there and take it.
If someone grabs your shirt, gift-wrap your best coat and make a present of it.
If someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life.
No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.

Kind of tough to swallow, huh? As pastor Vaughan Crow-Tipton has said about these words, “Congregations respond to this text about the same way my children respond to cooked spinach on their dinner plate. No matter how much I explain the nutritional value, no one around the table really wants to dig in.”

These words are hard for us to “dig into,” and I don’t believe for a moment that one sermon on them will convince you otherwise. But they are important for us to struggle with as we hear them anew – “Love your enemies.” Are you still listening? [Pause]

We had a fascinating discussion on this text the other day for those who joined our Wednesday Zoom Group. And I want to contextualize these words the same way I did for that gathering.

First, note that this is called the “Sermon on the Plain,” and for good reason. Jesus had come down the mountain after spending a prolonged period of time in deep prayer. He does not offer his mana’o from a lofty position as we typically do from a pulpit. No, Jesus stands among them “on the plain” indicating that they were all in this together – on the same level – as they sought to form a new “beloved community.”

I think this is important because I DON’T think Jesus is talking about relationships of unequal power – as we sometimes see in abusive domestic relationships or incidents of child abuse from parents or others. I believe those situations are in an entirely different category and I would not want those equated with Jesus’ intent.

Second, this was not intended to further victimize whole groups of people who have been oppressed on the basis of something beyond their control like their skin color, sexual orientation, gender, or differing abilities. They should NOT be the victims of further abuse by being required to love their enemies by offering the other cheek. Here is where movements like Black Lives Matter, Soul Force and others have taught us that justice sometimes requires saying - enough! No more!

And third, it does us little good to focus our attention on the big enemies that are hard for us to understand, those for whom we can make little sense of their actions like Hitler, and Stalin, and maybe even a recent president. No, let’s reel it in a little. We’ve got enough going on in our own homes, our places of work, the communities in which we live, and even our own churches - to give us plenty of practice in loving our enemies.

I think what Jesus is saying on this “level playing field” is, you’ve gotta love those folks who simply bug the heck out of you – because they are my children too. [Repeat]

Think of THAT person. I bet you have at least one. Who IS she? Who IS he? How have they hurt you or abused you by spreading falsehoods or openly criticized something you have done? They may not have slapped you on the face, but I bet if felt like it. How did you respond? Did you want to retaliate in some way? Did you retaliate? How did that work out for you? Who is YOUR enemy? [Pause]

During the War of 1812, the United States Navy defeated the British Navy in the Battle of Lake Erie. Master Commandant Oliver Perry wrote to Major General William Henry Harrison, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”

Many years later Walt Kelly twisted that line a bit in his now famous Pogo cartoon to parody this famous quote as he summarized humanity’s tendency to create our own problems. While he was referring specifically to our disregard for the environment, I believe, it can be extrapolated to many other relationships. Pogo looked around at all the trash in the forest and said, “We have met the enemy and – he is us.”

Whenever we think we are pointing to “the enemy” remember there are three fingers pointing back toward us. In other words, if we are truly to “love our enemies” we probably have to begin by looking into the mirror. How are we very much JUST LIKE THEM? Can you love what you see? Are you still listening? [Pause]

We can only do this by reminding ourselves on a regular basis that each one of us carries within our being a piece of the Divine. We are all God-bearers. God lives in you – and in you – and in you – and in you. That’s what must we treasure about ourselves AND it’s that aspect of ourselves that longs to love the Divine Presence in ALL others. No exceptions.

Herein lies the hard work of Christian faith. It’s not easy. It takes practice and we will fail often. [Pause]

I’m currently taking another ‘ōlelo Hawai’i class. I could be a glutton for punishment but I have such deep respect for Hawaiian culture and the language that I want to do everything I can to learn as much as I can in order to honor the gift of living here - and one which I don’t take for granted.

My class held on Mondays at 2 online. At about 11 each week I begin getting anxious. Maybe I didn’t finish all my homework, or I haven’t practiced enough, or I just feel like I’m not getting it and am embarrassed by my inability. So, like that spinach on the dinner plate I can think of a million excuses not to dig in.

Last week I came “this close” to not attending. I did NOT want to risk being called upon for an answer. On Zoom – everyone is looking right at you. But my sense of responsibility got the best of me and I reluctantly “logged on.” Wouldn’t you know it, my kumu called on me first. I had to come up with a very simple Hawaiian sentence – but I was sweating bullets. I struggled to come up with the words – AND the correct order – and then I waited for the response. Kumu Kalika respond “maikai’i Scott” which means “good.” Whew! I was so relieved.

As others in the class were called upon, I noticed similar struggles that I experienced. And I watched their faces as kumu encouraged them despite how miserably they did. We were all trying as best we could, and our teacher was right there cheering us on.

Friends, this is exactly how God works. We don’t become perfect Christians when we are baptized or when receive communion, or when we are ordained, or when we offer our prayer. No, it takes a lifetime of practice – and especially when it comes to loving our enemies. We’ll win some and lose some – sometimes we’ll get it right – other times we will fail miserably. But the best thing is that God is right there – within and among us – cheering us on. “Maika’i! Maika’i! Maika’i loa! [Pause]

It's likely that all the practice I can muster will never make me a fluent speaker in ‘ōlelo Hawai’i. But I know my efforts are recognized and responded to favorably. And I know I will never fully become a Christian until I am reunited with the God who formed me, but I am called to do the hard work which Jesus invites each of us to do. For, when I practice Ioving my enemy, when I pray for her, or give him a gift even after he has ripped me off, AND when I turn my cheek when hurt and not stoop to his tactics he may not change, but I might.

No matter, I can depend on the God who encourages me and invites me to keep practicing - maika’i, maika’i, maika’i , loa — and to “keep listening.”


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