Monday, April 30, 2018

Sermon - The Answers of Qoheleth

audio - click here

Not only was the Teacher wise, but he also imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs.The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true. The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them. Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body. Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. [Ecclesiastes 12:9-13]


           Perspective. Your view of the world.
         How do you keep score? We have all heard that “the one who dies with the most toys wins.” Perhaps you are more religious than that, so you are less concerned with material things and more interested in collecting friends and accomplishments. Maybe you are looking for ways to add jewels to your crown.
         What matters to you? I want to challenge us all this afternoon to consider our paradigm.  That may be a new word to some of you. Your paradigm is your world view, the pattern or set of constructs through which you view the world. Your life’s work and actions will spring from your paradigm, from the patterns and views that shape you.
         As Christians, we say that what matters most to us is loving God and loving people.  We say that what matters most to non-Christians is salvation, being forgiven for their sins and saved from the destiny of their own making by Jesus’s actions on the cross, accepting God’s gift and trusting Him as their Lord and Savior. Therefore, what matters to us is helping them meet Jesus.
         And I believe that we believe those things are true.  We do not just say them for the sake of recitation.
         But our actions show that many, many other things also matter to us.  We care about making a living.  We care about our human relationships.  We care about bettering ourselves, through education and experience and healthy choices. We care about having fun.  We care about the internet and television and baseball.  We care about food. There is nothing wrong with any of those things, when kept in perspective. Your paradigm can include all these under the shadow of worship and evangelism and service and ministry.
         When we overemphasize those things, caring about making a living becomes focus on wealth.  Caring about our relationships becomes self-promotion, or lust and abuse, or worship of family and family time, or preoccupation with sex.  Caring about bettering ourselves becomes obsessive devotion to wisdom and knowledge, or to travel, or to physical fitness, or to beauty.  Caring about having fun becomes seeking pleasure at all costs.  Caring about our jobs turns into workaholism. Any or all of them get in the way of what we say really matters – loving God, sharing the gospel, and loving people.
         In short, a loss of perspective leads to idolatry, to placing things and people and concepts and achievements ahead of our worship and service of God in priority and too often in place of our worship and service of God altogether. Our paradigm shifts from being God-centered to being self-centered.
There is another way perspective can be lost. Have you ever awakened, considered what the day or the week or the month ahead has in store, and wondered, “What is the point?”  Perhaps you identify with these words:
“Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”  The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind. What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted. I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I amassed silver and gold for myself. I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.“ [from Ecclesiastes 1 and 2]

         Have you been there? Have you found yourself on the treadmill of life, just getting to work and then getting home in time to feed the family and throw in a load of laundry and maybe, just maybe, watch 45 minutes of TV before you collapse in bed so you can start it all over again the next day? We can be overwhelmed with it all, throw up our hands, and decide that it is all meaningless, all a chasing of the wind. Our idol suddenly is mere survival.
         This is not a new struggle. Old Testament writers grappled with perspective, how to approach wealth and pleasure and work and wisdom.  We read a lot about those things in the Proverbs, with optimistic words and aphorisms and short statements that can, for some, lead to pretty simplistic views of the world when taken out of context or viewed as two-line proof texts that fit well on a coffee cup.  I love the Proverbs, but as with any other book of scripture, if you are pulling out a sentence or two, or perhaps even a chapter, and holding it up on its own as the sole measure of what God has laid out for your life, you are shortchanging the Bible.
         The Old Testament book that best addresses this struggle is the Book of Ecclesiastes. I am willing to bet that most of you have never heard a sermon on the Book of Ecclesiastes. It is one of my very favorite parts of scripture.
         The name “Ecclesiastes” is the Latin transliteration of the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Qoheleth, which is the pseudonym of the author of the book.  Now that is a mouthful. The literal Hebrew title of this book is “The Words of Qoheleth, the Son of David, King in Jerusalem.”  The word Qoholeth is associated with the Hebrew word for “assemble” and means something like “the one who gathers the assembly.” You may have heard the Greek word Ekklesia, meaning “congregation” or “assembly,” which is the New Testament word for church. So, you can see why Ecclesiastes sounds like our word ecclesiastical, which is used to mean “things of the church.” We often translate Ecclesiastes as the “Teacher” or the “Preacher.”
         Qoheleth, the Teacher of the book, is the only Jewish name in the Old Testament that we always translate, which makes it unique.  We have gotten used to talking about Jonah or Hezekiah or Haggai, using their Hebrew names, but for whatever reason we usually translate Qoheleth to “Ecclesiastes.”
         Qoheleth is either the author writing an autobiography or is the subject of a biography written by someone else. Both Jewish and Christian tradition say that Qoheleth is really Solomon. The book identifies its subject as a son of David and king of Jerusalem who has gained more wisdom than anyone before, and the nature of the book as wisdom literature leads many to the conclusion that Solomon must be both author and subject. Some recent scholars point to language in the book that appears to be post-exilic and say the language choices mean that Solomon cannot be the author. He could still be the subject, the Qoheleth of the title, but they say the book had to have been written by some later author. I don’t know the answer to that for sure.
         Ecclesiastes, which is one of the books of the Ketuvim, or “writings” of the Hebrew Bible, has been a source of controversy.  There have been, over the centuries, those in the church who did not think this book should remain in the canon as a part of our scriptures. The hullabaloo arises because this book can appear to contradict verses elsewhere, particularly in Proverbs.  If you believe that both Proverbs and Ecclesiastes were authored by Solomon – as many people do – then these apparent contradictions can really cause problems. Regardless of whether you care about authorship, the more literal you are in your reading of scripture, the harder it can be to reconcile what you read, especially if you like to pull out individual verses.
         Let me give you a couple of examples of what I mean.
        Proverbs has a variety of verses that seem to teach that so long as we are righteous people who do our best, all will go well for us. For example: “He holds victory in store for the upright, he is a shield to those whose walk in blameless, for he guards the courts of the just and protects the way of his faithful ones.” [Proverbs 2:7-8] “Blessings crown the head of the righteous, but violence overwhelms the mouth of the wicked.” [Proverbs 10:6] “No harm befalls the righteous, but the wicked have their fill of trouble.” [Proverbs 12:21] But in Ecclesiastes, we read this:
All share a common destiny – the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.  As it is with the good, so with the sinful.… This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: the same destiny overtakes all…. There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. [Ecclesiastes 9:2-3, 8:14].

So, there is your uplifting devotional thought for the day! 
We finish Proverbs, with its language that “the righteous man is rescued from trouble,” [Proverbs 11:8] and turn the page to the beginning of Ecclesiastes, and it seems to be 180 degrees apart, as pessimistic as Proverbs was optimistic. The book begins, “Meaningless!  Meaningless!  Utterly meaningless!  Everything is meaningless!” [Ecclesiastes 1:1] If you learned it in the King James, you know the words as “Vanity! Vanity!  All is vanity!”  Qoheleth says, “I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” [Ecclesiastes 1:14]
         So, we have several choices.  One is simply to discard the Book of Ecclesiastes, to say it is not fit for study, so we will just forget about it. A second is to spend the rest of this sermon doing a sort of scholarly thesis on how rabbinic scholars and early church fathers interpreted the book, quoting a lot of professors and literary historians – that would be interesting to some of us, but it would not be much of a sermon, and it is not what this pulpit is for.
         A third option is to see what God has for us this afternoon in the Book of Ecclesiastes.  I choose Door # 3.
         I think of the Book of Ecclesiastes as “Proverbs… the Rest of the Story.” Part of that is the tradition that they are both written by Solomon. Part of it is the placement of Ecclesiastes in our Bible, immediately following Proverbs. To me, it falls naturally to look at the Proverbs as the youthful optimism of the Teacher, seeing the promises of God before him and certain of his path. As he gets older and experiences all of life, his optimism is replaced not with pessimism but with experience, with the knowing look of middle age and perhaps even the calm understanding of old age, and he writes Ecclesiastes from the perspective of one who has seen how all the Proverbs play out.
         Let me be clear. I am not suggesting to you that the Proverbs are wrong or too-simple youthful wishes that should be discarded by the mature. Nothing could be further from the truth.  What I do think is this – taking individual verses as literal prooftexts is a dangerous and often misleading pursuit. I think the wisdom literature, indeed the entire Old Testament, in fact the entire Bible should be read as a whole. Yes, there are individual stories, and of course we have to deal with it in bites. But if you do not read Genesis in light of First Samuel and Isaiah and Colossians, you are missing something. If you read the wanderings of the Israelites in Numbers and Joshua without the view of the redemption of Christ and the teachings of Paul, you are not getting the full view. That is why we always include multiple scripture readings in every service; they are not randomly chosen but instead help shed light on the specific scripture for the day on which the sermon is based. Surely, reading much of the Bible without understanding the victory of the end of Revelation is a mistake.
         So too, reading Proverbs in isolation leaves out much of what God would teach us.
         By way of example, let’s think about proverbs we teach our children.
·       Slow and steady wins the race for the tortoise over the hare.
·       It only takes one innocent child to point out that the Emperor is not wearing any clothes.
·       Ugly ducklings grow up to be beautiful swans.
·       Cinderella escapes her cruel life with the mean stepmother and lives happily ever after.
·       Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
·       The bigger they are, the harder they fall.
·       Familiarity breeds contempt.
·       No pain, no gain.
We all know what all those mean, and we have doubtless taught them to our children. They are all full of truth.
That said, we do not expect our children to be slow, to expect absence and lack of familiarity in their relationships, to seek out pain, to be ugly, or to point out the faults in public officials.  We all know that there is a lot about life that will not be happily ever after.  Knowing these things does not make the proverbs untrue; we treasure them and teach them and even cling to them. But, we do so in context; as we grow and learn, we understand that there is more to the story. As Qoheleth tells us, “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.” [Ecclesiastes 9:11]
So, too, we cherish righteousness and prize Proverbs that say things like, “What the wicked dreads will overtake him; what the righteous desire will be granted.” [Proverbs 10:24] Maturity teaches us that the wicked often win awards and elections and position and, seemingly, the game of life; and experience teaches us that we can be righteous and, at the same time, poor and hungry and divorced and sick and unhappy.  That does not make the Proverb wrong. We value the call to a life of righteousness and attach vast importance to the direction in which the Proverbs point us; but it means the Proverb is not all there is of scripture, or of life.
As Paul Harvey says, now it is time for the rest of the story.
Proverbs tells us that wisdom will save us [Proverbs 2:12], but Qoheleth tells us that “with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” [Ecclesiastes 1:18] Proverbs teaches that “the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied” [Proverbs 13:4], while Qoheleth says that “pleasure… also proved to be meaningless.” [Ecclesiastes 2:1-2] The writer of Proverbs advises that “wealth brings many friends, but a poor man’s friends desert him.” [Proverbs 19:4] Sure enough, Ecclesiastes is having none of that, noting that, “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income.  This too is meaningless.” [Ecclesiastes 5:10] Proverbs says, “Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and your plans will succeed” [Proverbs 16:3], but Qoheleth says that:
The work that is done under the sun was grievous to me.  All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind… What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun?  All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest.  This too is meaningless. [Ecclesiastes 2:17-23]
I have entitled this sermon “The Answers of Qoheleth,” and right about now, you think I am nuts. You are ready to say that there are no answers here, only contradictions and despair, pessimism and diatribe. You can often identify with the idea that life is meaningless, that our daily turn of the wheel gets us nowhere, but where, you may be thinking, does this Teacher, this Qoheleth, provide us any answers?
Stay with me.
Answer #1 - View God accurately. 
Perspective. We are under the sun, but God is not. The sooner we figure out that our earth-bound, wind-chasing human perspective will never grasp all of who God is or what God is about, the sooner our paradigms will adjust to God-centeredness. Rather than coffee-cup theology that can lead us to focus on what we can gain if we are just good enough, Qoheleth would, like the apostle Paul, and like Jesus, have us stop chasing the wind and instead set our hearts on things above.
Everything is appropriate in its time. You are probably all familiar – if not from Bible Study than from the Byrds song – with this most famous passage of Ecclesiastes:
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace….
He has made everything beautiful in its time. [Ecclesiastes 3:1-11]

Turn. Turn. Turn.
We have talked before about the eternity of God, to whom a day is a thousand years and a thousand years are like a day. Add to that timelessness the basic fact that we do not understand God fully, or even mostly. His thoughts are not our thoughts, and His ways are not our ways. That is why the writer of Proverbs advises us not to lean on our own understanding.
The key words to understanding Ecclesiastes are found in this little prepositional phrase: “under the sun.” That phrase appears repeatedly through the book. All is meaningless under the sun.  Qoheleth writes that “no one can comprehend what goes on under the sun.  Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning.  Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it.” [Ecclesiastes 8:17] God has laid out a plan for us, but our choices have led us to a place where all is meaningless. [Ecclesiastes 7:29] And thus, we who chase the wind cannot comprehend what goes on under the sun, no matter what effort we put into trying to discover the meaning of life. What God has created and how God works are truly inscrutable to us.
That puts a different, and far more mature, spin on the repeated use of the word “meaningless” in the first few chapters. The world is not empty and worthless, but its meaning escapes us. We are so small in the vastness of what God has created, and our human minds – clouded by sin – simply cannot capture the nuances of life.
I am not saying that everything that happens is controlled by God or sent by God.  Saying that God understands does not mean that I blame God for drunk drivers or tornadoes or cancer. We live in a fallen world. I am saying that when those things are meaningless to us, it is time to turn our gaze upward.
Qoheleth is not writing to discourage us. The message is in fact one of hope and joy: there is so much more to the universe than we can see, and God has all of it prepared for us, whom He loves despite our relative smallness. No eye can see nor can human mind imagine what God has in store for us. [Isaiah 64:4; 1 Corinthians 2:9] The writer of Ecclesiastes has glimpsed the mind of God and has seen a phenomenal, loving, exciting panorama of ideas and gifts and pleasures that the rest of us cannot yet comprehend. It is all waiting for us.
In other words, look at it this way: God is not under the sun.  We are. Our work and our search for pleasure and our wealth are all meaningless under the sun.  But Qoheleth does not leave us there.  He writes in chapter 5: “God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.” [Ecclesiastes 5:2] We only see what is under the sun, so the workings of God are beyond us. In Romans, Paul says it this way: “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable his judgments, and His paths beyond tracing out!  Who has known the mind of the Lord?” [Romans 11:33-34] Isaiah tells us that no one can fathom the understanding of God. [Isaiah 40:28]
God is not under the sun. Nothing is meaningless to God, or in the plan of God. Much is meaningless to us, limited as we are. Qoheleth’s first answer is all about perspective. Our paradigm as humans – our world view, the patterns that govern how we see things – is not God’s paradigm. Ecclesiastes 11:1 teaches us to “cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again.”  The timing is God’s, not ours.
Keep God in the proper perspective.  God is good. From the beginning, the Bible has taught us that all God has made is very good. God is love.  God is truth. God is eternal, and everything is beautiful in His time. When all seems like vanity to you, remember that your view is limited to what is under the sun; God is not so constrained.

Answer #2 – Honor God completely.
Qoheleth places overwhelming value on worship. He tells us to remember our creator in the days of our youth.  He teaches that “much dreaming and many words are meaningless.  Therefore, stand in awe of God.” [Ecclesiastes 5:7] From the beginning of the Bible to the end, our view of God is shaped by the words of scripture.  From “In the beginning, God…” to the worship of the twenty-four elders in Revelation, falling down and calling out “Amen. Hallelujah!  For the Lord God Almighty reigns!” [Revelation 19:4-6] From the Psalmist’s continuing cries of eternal praise to this incredible statement of Habbakuk:
But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before Him.…  LORD, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O LORD…. His glory covered the heavens and His praise filled the earth. His splendor was like the sunrise; rays flashed from his hand, where his power was hidden…. I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound…. Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior. [Habakkuk 2:20 – 3:4, 3:16-19]

Qoheleth joins the song of the early church, that every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. [Philippians 2:10-11] Qoheleth says: “So, I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands.” [Ecclesiastes 9:1]
What is meaningless, what is chasing the wind, turns out to be what the Teacher sees humanity doing under the sun.  The search for pleasure, the incessant love of money, the misuse of the idea of wisdom so as not to be, as Proverbs intends, a means of finding the will of God but rather to be a tool to subjugate others… these are vanity.
When Qoheleth teaches us to eat, drink, and enjoy life with the wife of our youth all the days of our meaningless life, he is not contradicting the words of scripture. He is telling us that all humans who live under the sun are heading to the same end.  Jesus says the same thing when He teaches that God makes His sun to shine on the evil and the good and that the rain falls on the just and the unjust.
It is not our action but instead the setting of our hearts that has ultimate impact. It is in this world of vain human pursuit that Qoheleth tells us to look up, to honor God completely, to stand in awe of God.

Answer #3 – Love God supremely.
And so we come to the end of Ecclesiastes, to our scripture for the day.  The teacher, Qoheleth, says this: “Now all has been heard: here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” [Ecclesiastes 12:13]
We have lost something in our modern translations of scripture when we do not remember that concept of the “fear of the Lord,” that great and mysterious Old Testament phrase. It seems incongruous to be afraid of the one who loves us most, and surely Ecclesiastes is not teaching us to live in fear. John tells us that perfect love casts out fear. Some translations replace “fear” in this context with “reverence,” and most of us as children were taught in Sunday School that these passages call for a sort of reverential awe.  I think that is true, as far as it goes.
The call to fear God is explained well by Luther’s concept of “filial fear,” that is, the idea that comes from family life.  As opposed to “servile fear,” the fear the slave has of the whip or the prisoner has of the cell, filial fear grows out of the love and respect we have for those in our family. We fear displeasing them, not because they will punish us but because our respect for them is such that offending or failing them is unacceptable to us. 
Ecclesiastes says that the whole meaning of life is in that – fearing God and keeping His commandments. That does not mean just the Ten Commandments. He means to obey God, whatever God commands. That is complete love. We cannot stand the idea of displeasing God, of failing Him. When that is our paradigm, we love God. When that is our paradigm, we love others. When that is our paradigm, we do everything we can to make sure that others know Him and love Him and accept all He has to offer.
Qoheleth says, “This only have I found: God made mankind upright, but men have gone in search of many schemes.” [Ecclesiastes 7:29] We must not follow our schemes but instead must love God. That is the paradigm shift we have to make. We must shift our view from what is under the sun to set our hearts on things above.
How do you love God? At the beginning of this sermon, I asked you what matters to you, and I said that our actions demonstrate what really matters. Biblical writer after Biblical writer – from Deuteronomy to First Samuel to Hosea to Matthew to Luke to Paul to Peter - tell us the same thing: the way we show we love God is to obey, to follow His commands. John tells that the one who says “I know Him” but does not do what He commands is a liar. Whoever claims to live in Him must walk as Jesus did. [1 John 2:3-6] When Qoheleth tells us to turn from our human schemes, that is what he means.
Where does that leave you today? I hope I have not created the impression that we should discount the Book of Proverbs, because that is not my intention. Instead, we should ingest the Proverbs as a whole and understand them in the context of honoring God completely, of recognizing that we can never fully comprehend Him whose thoughts are not our thoughts and whose ways are not our ways, in the paradigm of loving God supremely. We strive to understand the rest of the story, to read to the end of the book. So long as we are under the sun, we will find frustration and absence of meaning in much of our pursuits, but focusing on what is not under the sun is true wisdom, and indeed we understand the meaning of the Proverbs: the victory He holds in store for the upright, the shield He is to those whose walk is blameless, for he guards the courts of the just and protects the way of his faithful ones. [Proverbs 2:7-8] Our right paradigm allows us to glory in the promise that “Blessings crown the head of the righteous,” [Proverbs 10:6] for we know that we are crowned with His righteousness alone.
We do not know the source of the wind or how the human body is formed in the womb, and we do not comprehend the ways of God. [Ecclesiastes 11:5] Our lives under the sun do not bring us meaning that we can understand. Seeking our own way is vanity.
But there is an alternative, a place to turn, a way to go. It is to fear God – to approach the creator with loving reverence that acknowledges His great power and mysterious ways – and to do His will, to keep His commandments.
Much of the New Testament is devoted to teaching us what it really means to fear God and keep His commandments. For now, perhaps not even the Teacher knows for sure what the details are, and maybe that is the point. We may well not understand all the particulars, but we cannot and must not let that failure to understand keep us from following God anyway.
You may be on that treadmill.  You may have been a church member all your life but still feel trapped in meaninglessness. Now is the time. Honor God. Fear God.  Love God.  Come to the altar during this time and establish the relationship with the Almighty that will raise your view beyond what is under the sun.
For there is nothing else. Everything in this world, under our sun and made by our hands, lacks meaning outside of its place in the overwhelming will of God. To love our God is to recognize and embrace more than what is here, more than what those around us see, more than is simply under the sun.
Remember your creator in the days of your youth. He makes everything beautiful in its time.  Fear God, and keep His commandments, for this is your whole duty.

That is the conclusion of the matter. Stop chasing the wind.



       

Monday, April 16, 2018

Sermon - You Have Heard It Said

audio - click here

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.  You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. - Matthew 5:38-48



          This is a sermon about enemies. Real enemies. Not those who cut us off in traffic or don’t return their shopping basket to the corral.  I want to talk about the true bad guys, the ones who beyond all doubt are guilty of doing their best intentionally and directly to injure us, our friends, our communities, and our families. Thieves and innocent-sounding swindlers who take advantage of your kind-heartedness. Theater bombers and school shooters. People who lie to your face and don’t give it, or you, a second thought.
        As you can already tell, I am not speaking today of figurative or inanimate enemies like disease and poverty and natural disaster. I am talking about enemies the way Jesus is talking about them in the Sermon on the Mount – I am talking about people. And trying to use synonyms – referring to them as “adversariesor nemesesor foesor antagonists” – just does not fill the bill.  Today, I stand before you to talk about enemies. I will use that word a lot today.
        Sometimes, enemies are not intentionally injuring us.  Sometimes, we imagine enemies. We are conditioned to see others as enemies. Too often, whether it be at political conventions or on social media, we do not respectfully discuss issues with those of different views, and we are not loyally countering the opposition.  No, we defend against – and frequently assault – enemies.  And make no mistake: we don’t just want to win; we want to vanquish. We plot our strategy and revel in the confrontation, almost as if it were a football game or a King of the Mountain contest.  When I was a kid, after baseball games, we were supposed to give a tribute to the other team we had just played.  We were supposed to say “2-4-6-8, who do we appreciate?” And then we would yell the other team’s name.  Seven-year-olds being seven-year-olds, we would alter the rhyme when we had won the game.  We would yell out “2-4-6-8, who did we annihilate?”  Today, we are commonly no better than seven-year-old Pee Wee baseball players. We want the other side to lose badly, to crawl back into their holes, to leave us alone and take their friends with them, but only after acknowledging that we are right and they are wrong, that we are good and they are bad, that we are winners and they are losers.
In that world in which we find ourselves, I know that preaching on “loving your enemies” that draws out some immediate responses.
        For many longtime churchgoers, this is comfort food.  You have heard the Sermon on the Mount preached many times, and you are familiar with Jesus’s words about turning a cheek, and you rest easy with the words, if not with the meaning.
        For many others, including many other longtime churchgoers, these are almost fighting words. You hear “enemies” and think about concentration camps and terrorism, about Pearl Harbor and 9/11 and threats of world domination, and you cannot believe that anyone would try to take Jesus literally, certainly not at any level beyond being nice to someone who is rude to you in the line at the DMV. Talking about loving enemies somehow seems to you weak, naïve, dangerously simple-minded.
        For still others, this verse has never been taken seriously at all. These are pretty words for sanctified poetry and church services, but they have no application in the real world. Professor Karoline Lewis writes that “[w]e might be tempted to interpret such a plea as dated… as one of those Bible verses that cannot stand the test of time because the distance between Jesus’s world and our world is an expanse not worth our time to traverse.” [https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3158]
        In planning for today, I read numerous sermons and articles on this topic, and I must tell you that I find most of them to be way too simple and unsatisfying.  I am not persuaded by those who write as if loving our enemies were easy, and I do not believe that every time we act lovingly, rapscallions immediately turn into model citizens as if by magic.  On the other hand, I do know this – responding to enemies with hatred does nothing to slow them down.
        Not everything I read in preparation was disappointing. In a great sermon delivered at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church of Birmingham in November of 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. says that to love our enemies, we first have to recognize our own failings – the log in our own eyes.  We all struggle with right and wrong; as Dr. King says, “There is something of a civil war going on in all our lives. There is a recalcitrant South of our soul revolting against the North of our soul.[King sermon http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/document sentry/doc_loving_your_enemies.1.html] Plato described our personality as a charioteer trying to control two strong horses, each heading in opposite directions. When we admit that truth about our own internal struggle, then Dr. King believed that we can begin to find something worth loving in our enemies.
Love for enemies grows out of hope, that knowledge that our life and future have been changed because of what Jesus has done for us and therefore the only way for us to change the world is through love.  It was Abraham Lincoln who was reported to say, “I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.” Philosophy professor and pastor Thomas Christianson says it this way:
[I]f these actions are the work of monsters and demons, I am powerless to stop them. I can only shake my head and feel sad that such beings cannot be stopped. But if I’m dealing with humans, I can have hope. Hope that messages of love and acceptance and peace can be heard. Hope that God can redeem even the worst of sinners. Hope that God can redeem my deep, dark sins, too. [RELEVANT Magazine, 8/10/15]
        Love is not easy, and it does not work automatically to convert all the villains of the world, but there is no other option. It is neither naïve nor simple.
        Those who gather on the mountain to hear Jesus deliver this sermon know about enemies. They are occupied. The utter destruction of the Temple and indeed all of Jerusalem by Roman armies is coming soon, and Jesus knows it. 
        We also know what enemies are. They are in our midst. They can be in your own family, in your workplace, your school, your community, your social network.
        Enemies.
     I want you to play along with me.  To help guide you through the rest of this sermon, I want you to close your eyes right now and think of one personal enemy.  I’d rather you not think about someone far away.  Don’t – just for a moment, humor me – don’t focus on Kim Jong-un or the other political party’s standard bearer or some talking head on cable tv or that Facebook sparring partner who lives in another state or someone who was mean to you twenty years ago or that one despicable person you met one time.  Focus on someone with whom you deal regularly, maybe even every day. If you can’t think of one, then good for you, and this sermon is probably pretty irrelevant to you; but in my heart of hearts I think that you are either not thinking hard enough or you must never leave your house, for enemies surround us. 
        I am serious about closing your eyes.  Nobody will laugh at you or look at you funny, I promise. If you don’t want to close your eyes, then focus your mind’s eye on that person.  It may be a longtime enemy, a rival from way back.  Or it may be someone whom you would have called a friend last week.  It may even be a spouse, who at least for the present is an enemy.  It may be a co-worker. Your enemy may well not be evil, not really.  Your enemy may have just, for a season, lost control of the wrong horse.
        Have you got your enemy in mind?  You can open your eyes now.
        You have heard it said, “Love your friends but hate your enemies.”
        And, you have heard it said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
        Exodus records: “But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” [Exodus 21:23-35].  Now, to be sure, this command was a description for early community justice in response to crimes so as to maintain order, and it was meant to be meted out where appropriate by judges appointed by God… but “an eye for an eye” was not just a random maxim handed down by simpletons who did not know better, and we do those who follow the idea literally a disservice if we misunderstand its source.  It came from Yahweh.
        So, when Jesus speaks in the Sermon on the Mount, he is taking on what these good followers of Jehovah had been taught in their version of Sunday School for generations.
         And He takes on what many of us grew up believing.  You do not have to listen to the radio very long to hear that exact phrase – “an eye for an eye” – coming from musicians and commentators alike.  Politicians on both sides of the aisle use it at the drop of a hat when it suits them.
       In preaching on loving our enemies, I am not offering political or military strategy. I recognize the complications of foreign policy, and I do not suggest that running a nation is the same as running our personal lives.
        Evil and terror and crime and international intrigue are real and must be faced. To suggest that complicated geopolitical and sociological solutions can be reached with a simple sentence ignores too much.  “Love your enemies” is a word that can come into conflict with other directives, that can clash with other things that we know Jesus wants us to do, things like protecting our loved ones and making the world a safer and more peaceful place. In this one sentence, Jesus was not negating all of God’s words about violent crime and invading armies. Pacifism and just war doctrine and survival in a world of terrorism and fascism and lunacy are complex ideas for a political science classroom, the halls of Congress, the Oval Office, the great palace courts, and parliamentary chambers across the world. Paul tells us, so far as it depends on us, to live at peace with all. [Romans 12:18] Sometimes peace is not left up to us, and radical action is required. I get that.  I am not qualified to answer all those questions, and this sacred desk is not the place to promote any political agenda. 
        I am, on the other hand, unashamedly standing before you to discuss what Jesus tells us about how we should treat each other.  This text is not a parable subject to interpretation. This is not a symbol.  This is not obscure vocabulary or highbrow language that requires an advanced degree to understand.
        Jesus speaks as clearly as possible: “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemies.’  But I say to you ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’”
        Nothing subtle about that.  You do not need the spiritual gift of discernment to figure out what Jesus is getting at. 
        Do not cheapen these words of Jesus by concluding that he really just means loving your neighbor, loving your brother.  Those things are of course important, Biblical teachings of Jesus.  But they are not His subject matter here, where Jesus takes it to another level.  “You have heard it said to love your neighbor…. But I say love your enemies.”  Jesus is now augmenting the Levitical law Jim read earlier requiring love of neighbor. Jesus is saying that that Old Testament word is not the end of the message. The voice of Jesus – God incarnate – booms across this sanctuary and this world as He stands on the mountainside:
Once, when God spoke out of bushes and donkeys and prophets, we taught you about loving your neighbor.  Now, the kingdom of God is here.  The Father and I are one.  Everything there is of God stands before you in the flesh. What you learned before was right… but I am telling you something more.  Now I am telling you to love your enemies.

        So, if enemies are real and Jesus tells us to love them, how do we follow that command in the real world?  In the land of Facebook and cable news, what does it mean to love our enemies?
        The same thing it meant when Jesus said it the first time.
        The same thing it has meant throughout the centuries since then.

1.  Loving our enemies means obeying the Golden Rule.
        I believe that loving our enemies means wanting the best for them… but it is so much more than what we want. It is no accident that the Golden Rule shows up in this Sermon on the Mount. Jesus tells us to do to others – all others, any others - whatever we wish that they would do to us.
        To do.” That is a statement of action.  He does not mention emotion. He does not tell us we have to have warm fuzzy feelings towards the enemy.  He sure does not tell us to wait until the hurt goes away before we love.  He does not tell us to find a way to relate to our enemies before we love them.  He does not tell us to wait until it feels good, until they approach us, until they recognize the evil of their ways.
        He tells us to act.  To do. To do whatever we wish they would do to and for us. Too often our watchword seems to be to do to others as they have done to us or before they do to us. That is not the way of Jesus.
        Love is not a feeling.  Love is action. Jesus’s word for “love” here is “agapate,” the verb form of agape, which in turn is the love defined for us by Paul in the 1 Corinthians 13 passage we read responsively.  Agape keeps no record of wrongs.  Agape bears all things.  Agape endures all things.
        Loving your enemies means seeking their best over your own, whether they deserve it or not.  Better said, loving your enemies means actively seeking their best when they most assuredly do not deserve it.  After all, it is easy to love the deserving.  Even the hypocrites do that.
        What can you do for your enemies? 
        To be more specific, focus now on that enemy you pictured when I asked you to close your eyes… What can you do for him?  How can you treat her in the way that you wish she would treat you?  Are you keeping record of his wrongs?  Are you bearing and enduring everything she does?
        Do you love her, every day?  Are you loving him?
       
2.  Loving your enemies means praying for them.
        We have all been there: the prayer meeting or youth group or community group, when it comes time for prayer requests.  If enemies are mentioned at all, it is usually in a backhanded, snarky shot.  “Please pray for Bill, who needs to understand that what he is doing is so harmful.”  “Please pray for Jane, who just does not realize how mean she is being to me.”  “Please pray for my father, so he can stop gambling and drinking all of my college fund away.”
        Now, there is some good in praying for those who have problems. But that is not what Jesus is talking about when He teaches us to pray for our enemies. 
I remember it like it was yesterday. It was Sunday, September 16, 2001.  Five days had passed since we all saw the planes hit the buildings.  The twin towers had fallen.  The Pentagon had a hole in it.  United Flight 93 was down in the fields of Pennsylvania. American flags dotted the landscape wherever you turned – in yards and on storefronts and, suddenly, on every politician’s lapel.  There was no question who were the good guys and who were the bad guys.  I did not question it then, and I do not question it now.
I walked into the Joshua Class, the Sunday School class I taught at First Baptist Church in Nashville, a room full of individuals who were just like folks across the nation – shell-shocked, angry, hurt, fearful, confused, ready to fight. 
I remember how I bookended my lesson.  To begin the class, I asked several people to pray.  I asked for prayer for the NYPD and the Fire Department and the many brave first responders and their families.  I asked someone else to pray for President Bush and Mayor Giuliani and for the leaders across the nation and around the world who would need guidance over the coming days and weeks and months as the reactions and responses were calculated.  I asked someone else to pray for the injured and the families of the deceased and the wounded.  I asked yet another to lead us in prayer for those many people of faith and goodwill who were already responding with money and food and blankets and their presence at Ground Zero.
I tried to teach a Sunday School lesson, and then I turned to Tim.  Not the Tim in the church with whom I spent a great deal of time, this Tim was far from the person I knew best, but I recognized a level of spirituality and maturity in Tim that made it clear to me that he was the one to choose for the hardest task I had to delegate.  I had called Tim the night before and asked him to be prepared to close our time by leading us in prayer for our enemies.
I knew it was not an easy task, and it was certainly an unpopular assignment. Most of us were talking about destroying our enemies. 
        What Tim showed us that morning was difficult and wonderful and terrible and powerful.  He showed us that when we approach the throne of grace with the name of an enemy, it changes us. Especially when we don’t want it to.  Especially when even thinking about that enemy, much less entertaining the idea of praying for him or her, makes our skin crawl.
        The Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book, as implemented at the Betty Ford clinic, teaches those in recovery to pray for their enemy by name every day for two weeks. To free yourself of resentment, you are to pray for the person you resent, asking for his health, prosperity, and happiness. Even when you don't really want it for him, and your prayers are only words and you don't mean it, AA teaches you to go ahead and do it anyway. [http://www.hazeldenbettyford.org/articles/twelve-steps-of-aa-teach-people-to-live-without-resentment] Do it every day for two weeks and you will find you have come to mean it and to want it for him, and you will realize that where you used to feel bitterness and resentment and hatred, you now feel compassionate understanding and love. [http://www.12steps.nz/12-steps-programme/step-4/resentment/]
        Jesus does not tell us what to pray for our enemies… but it is safe to say He is not suggesting that we pray that they be struck with a plague.  He is teaching us to lift our enemies up to our heavenly Father – by name, with their face and their personality and their enemy status particularly in mind.  He does not tell us to pray about our enemies – “O God, tell me how to deal with so-and-so” –  No, he tells us to pray for our enemies.  To put their interests and their welfare into the hands of the Father.
        To pray for those who persecute you and spitefully use you can be described as nothing else than an act of love.  When Jesus prayed for those who were in the process of crucifying Him, He exhibited an understanding of their mindset and their predicament, and He asked God to forgive them.  That is love. 
        Focus again on your enemy you have pictured.  What can you pray for?  Your enemy’s health?  Salvation? Happiness?

3.  Loving our enemies means forgiving them.
        I know that “forgiveness” is one of those church words that, when we hear it from the pulpit, is likely to send us to Snoozeville.  Oh, there goes the preacher again.
        For many of us who have grown up in the church, we have sat through retreats and Sunday School units and multiple sermons on forgiveness, and we have decided that we know what it means.  Unfortunately, many of us reached those conclusions when we were too young really to know what enemies were, and when we were immature and looking for religious-sounding ways to justify our desires and selfishness.
        So, we have settled for a vague notion that forgiveness is getting over the worst of our anger – at least outwardly - coupled with the explanation that forgiveness does not mean forgetting and that just because we forgive someone does not mean that we have to put our neck back on the chopping block.  Of course that’s true.  Of course forgiving does not require us to leave ourselves unprotected or to be stupid or to subject ourselves knowingly to further unnecessary injury.
        And yet … and yet … there is more to forgiveness. Jesus teaches to turn our left cheek to the enemy while our right cheek still bears the red marks of the stinging blow.  There is a difference between self-defense and revenge, and it is the latter that Jesus is discussing here.  The first step of forgiving our enemies is choosing not to seek to destroy them in a fit of retaliation and vengeance.
        But we cannot stop there.  Jesus tells us to forgive, not seven times but seventy-seven or seventy times seven times. [Matthew 18:22] Jesus’s idea of forgiving an enemy is healing the very soldier who is in the process of slapping the cuffs on Him.  Jesus’s idea of forgiveness is not to shun demoniacs but to cast out their demons, not to ignore betrayers but to look them in the eye and speak with compassion, not to punish deniers but to welcome them with new mission without ever mentioning the stinging failures of the past.
        Not once have I said that your enemy deserves to be forgiven.  Of course she does not.  She deserves an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  Concepts of karma and compensation will easily justify your staying far away and armoring yourself against further interaction while you wait for her to get hers.  And, truth be told, she may well get hers. Still … children of God are never completely happy about that.  It never feels like you think it is going to feel.  There is no real joy in karma.
        Dr. King referred to this forgiveness this way:

Another way that you love your enemy is this: When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time when you must not do it. There will come a time, in many instances, when the person who hates you most, the person who has misused you most, the person who has gossiped about you most, the person who has spread false rumors about you most, there will come a time when you will have an opportunity to defeat that person. It might be in terms of a recommendation for a job; it might be in terms of helping that person to make some move in life. That’s the time you must do it. That is the meaning of love. In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It’s not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual.
[Dexter Ave. Baptist Church sermon]

        If you decline to forgive your enemy – if you continue the punishment and resentment and leave up the barriers between your soul and his – you not only make it absolutely certain he remains your enemy, but you also burden yourself.  It is just so hard to continue to fight those battles.
       
4.  Loving our enemies means reflecting the love of God.
        We love because we are new creatures. We love because God first loved us. 
        While we were sinners – hellbent rebels ignoring our Father’s plan and running as far from home as possible, winding up in a pigsty of our own making – our Father watched and waited and, while we were still a long way off, came running to meet us.
       Like Cain, God’s enemy, we were murderers, and He gave us a mark of protection.
      Like David, condemned by the prophet Nathan, we were adulterers, and He called us people after His own heart.
       Like the rebellious nation of Israel, we were exiles, and He brought us home.
     Like Saul, called by some a Pharisaical terrorist, we did everything we could to hamper the word of God, and he came to us and changed us and gave us a new name and sent us out on mission.
        We were blind, and He made us see.
        We were enemies, and He loved us.
        You have heard it said to love your friends and hate your enemies.  But I say, love your enemies.  Very rarely, there is a good man who is willing to lay down his life for a righteous person, and this is love. [John 15:13] But God commended His love to us in this, that while we were yet sinners, Christ gave His life for us. [Romans 5:8]
        God loves His enemies. 
        And that love is not some namby-pamby feeling, not mere affection.  The love of God for His enemies is one that leaves Him no option but to spread out His arms and die for them.
        And I am convinced … with Paul I say that I am convinced… that neither height nor depth nor death nor life nor angels nor rulers nor things present nor things to come can separate God’s love from His enemies.  Nothing. Not the Resistance.  Not a wall.  Not distress or famine or danger or sword.  Not suicide bombers. Not Syrian chemical weapons or North Korean nukes.  Not even my miserable failings, my immaturity, my selfishness, my barb-throwing unkindness.  Nothing.
        And if that is how God loves His enemies, then how should we love ours?  We are not God, but He lives within us, and we are called to love as He loves.  And He loved us when we were His enemies, when we are His enemies.
        And if we reflect that love of God with our enemies, then what about the myriad others around us who are not enemies?  There are lots of folks we have trouble loving who cannot reasonably be called enemies.  Some of you have real trouble loving your next-door neighbors if they are Democrats … or Republicans, take your pick. Some of us find it difficult to love the homeless.  Some of us have trouble loving those whom we find on the opposite side of today’s culture wars. I did not say we have trouble understanding them or affirming them – those are different questions.  We have trouble loving them, welcoming them, offering them a cup of cold water.
        Let me make that point again.  Understanding is different from loving.  Affirming is different from loving. To say that I love someone does not mean that I understand them, and it does not mean that I affirm their choices. Oftentimes, the most loving thing I can do is to stand by my convictions and refuse to affirm behavior that I know to be wrong. But being strong in my convictions must never interfere with my loving the person with whom I disagree. I recently found out that some of my friends have a child who is transgender.  I do not understand the psychology that leads to that situation, and I am in no position to judge them or their child; but I will say this: if they or their child walked into this service, I pray and hope that we would love them – all three of them – as God loves them and as Christ loved us. If we can love our enemies, then surely we can love those who vote differently, or look different, or act different, or believe differently, or live in circumstances that we will never understand.
        Picture that enemy again. Are you patient with him or her?  Are you kind?  Or are you arrogant and rude?  Do you insist on your own way? Are you irritable and resentful?  Do you take joy at wrongs or with the truth?  Do you bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things? 
        Does your love for him or her ever fail?
        Remember when you were God’s enemy, lost in your sin. Thank God that He ran after you with love and beg His forgiveness when we do not do the same toward our own enemies.
        Being asked to pray for the masterminds of the worst terrorist attack on our soil in history may seem beyond the pale to you.  You have heard it said that such an attempted prayer is meaningless. I don’t think it is.
        Being asked to love that person, that enemy, you thought about earlier in the sermon may seem beyond what you can muster.  You have heard it said that it cannot be done. I think it can.
        If you can conceive of love for your enemy at all, you may think that all you can do is offer lip service, perhaps think nice thoughts and steel yourself against actively seeking to injure your enemy.  You have heard it said that is all you can do. I don’t think it is.
        You have heard it said that some people do not deserve your love. That is wrong. There is no one beyond love.
        Because we are not to love on our own.  We love as Jesus loves. We love with Jesus’s love. And nothing can separate enemies from that love.  Nothing.

          Corrie Ten Boom, the author of The Hiding Place, writes in another of her books about her experience in the prison camp.  She says, “… When my former guard from the concentration camp asked me to forgive him, that moment I felt great bitterness swelling in my heart. I remembered the sufferings of my dying sister.  But I knew that unforgiveness would do more harm to me than the guard’s whip…. The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.  Thank you, Lord, that your love in me can do that which I cannot do.  I could not do it.  I was not able.  Jesus in me was able to do it.  You see, you never touch so much the ocean of God’s love as when you love your enemies.”
        You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  But Jesus says “Do not resist…. Turn the other cheek…. Go the extra mile.”
        You have heard it said, “Love your neighbor, and hate your enemies.”  But Jesus says, “Love your enemies.”
        In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.