Sunday, May 12, 2019

Down in the River to Pray

Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA   
May 12, 2019
Pastor Robert McCarty

The Song lyrics below are from "Down in the River to Pray" from the movie "O Brother, Wear Art Thou." And yes, I sang the song from the pulpit.

Preaching Texts:    Revelation 7: 9-17   John 10: 22-30    (especially Revelation)

As I went down in the river to pray 
Studying about that good old way 
And who shall wear the starry crown 
Good Lord, show me the way 

Last week I talked about Wow moments in scripture. Revelation is a book just full of the Wow. I was reading Revelation this week, and I saw the line about holding palm branches and I thought we could sing “All Glory Laud and Honor” again this week. We could join our voices with the heavenly choir and praise God and sing this refrain: “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen" (Rev:7:12). We can come here and praise God the Father and lift up our palm branches and all wear white.

O brother’s let's go down,
Let’s go down, come on down,
Come on brothers let's go down, 
Down in the river to pray 

Why do Lutheran pastor’s wear white robes? We call them a symbol of our baptism—the community’s baptism—as if we are down in the river. But, you also know that our worship anticipates this moment—Revelation—when we all wear white, and we all sing, and we all wave palm branches, and we are thousands upon thousands, a great myriad of hope basking in the glory of God. That moment is surely coming. So sure are we that it is coming that the glory of this revelation moment spills over, splashes into our worship today. 

The outside world also splashes into our worship today—more than just the rain— because we live in the confluence of two kingdoms. We have a foot in the world and a foot in heaven. Well, it probably is more like a toe or two in heaven and a foot and half on earth. A foot and a half and then some lives in the reality of earth. But sometimes with our baptism, living in our baptism, we can throw ourselves, cannonball, belly flop, feet first or head first dive into the kingdom of heaven.

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the robe and crown
Good Lord, show me the way!

The movie O Brother Where Art Thou has not one but two baptismal moments as George Clooney’s character and cynic Ulysses Everett McGill escapes from jail and becomes an overnight singing sensation and thwarts the klan, receives pardon from the governor, saves his marriage and comes face to face with the law and death. All of this happens in an hour and forty-five minutes. In the middle, in the first baptismal scene he and his two other jail-mates encounter a church gathering, not just at the river, but in the river to pray.

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord, show me the way!

(Sometimes Woody and Gerry and their blue-grass group has sung that song for us.) 

Ulysses two jail-mates, Ulysses as well, the three of them are surrounded by a congregation of Christ singing and clothed in white robes over their Sunday best outfits, and they process through the woods where Delmar and Pete and Ulysses are cooking and eating squirrel and the singing congregation lines up in hip deep water and the preacher takes them one by one and dips them backwards beneath the water. Full-immersion, they do not say the words in the movie, but you know the words. “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

O sinners let's go down, 
Let's go down, come on down, 
O sinners let's go down, 
Down in the river to pray 

Overcome by the moment, Delmar runs, no procession for him, he runs into the water and splashes his way to the front of the line into the hands of the preacher and he comes up out of his baptism proclaiming the wow moment of God’s goodness.

“Well that’s it boys, I’ve been redeemed. The preacher done washed away all my sins and transgressions. It’s the straight and narrow from here on out. And heaven everlastings my reward.”

Ulysses chastises him, “What you talking about? We got bigger fish to fry.”

So Delmar says it again. “The preacher said all my sins been washed away. Including the Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yaslu.”

Ulysses, “I thought you said you were innocent of those charges.”

Delmar pauses to think for just a second, “Well, I was lying, and the preacher said that’s sin been washed away too. Neither God nor man’s got nothing on me now.”

Then he leans back with eyes closed and face up to heaven, arms outstretched. “Come on in boys, the waters fine.”

Pete thrusts his hat into Ulysses hands and runs into the water.

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the robe and crown
Good Lord, show me the way!

O mother’s, let's go down
Let's go down, come on down
Come on, mother’s, let's go down
Down in the river to pray.

Oh, that we all run into the water. That we all splash face first into our baptism and into our future that kingdom, that heavenly kingdom with God. 

When we talk about the wow moments of living here on earth, many probably recognize the most basic wow moment of our common experience is the wow moment of birth. B--- and D--- up in the choir went down and visited J--- and L--- last week and brought back a few pictures of their baby son with his tuft of black hair. Because when you look at a new born child, you just have to stop and think we have all been there. We have all been small and vulnerable, totally dependent on the adults in our lives. Needing help to eat and get dressed and diaper changes. Small and no words. We have all been there.

Thank you to D--- for coordinating the carnations this morning. D--- and L---  and R--- and B--- and R--- and A--- for helping to hand them out. I have heard of another congregation where even the men get carnations, because we all have mothers. Those (men and women) whose mothers still lived would receive a red carnation and those whose mothers had died would receive white carnations. Then you could look across the congregation and see the mixture of emotions associated with mother’s day. I know some of you wish that your mother could be here. I also know that some mothers wish their children could be here as well.

And who shall wear the robe and crown
Good Lord, show me the way!

I have the good pleasure of telling you today, by the words and ministry of the Good Shepherd, Christ your lord, you have been born anew in these waters. You have come up out of the waters wet with your salvation won for you by the cross of Christ. Maybe that is why it is pouring rain today, so you have to get wet.

You have been saved. You have been redeemed. The straight and narrow path to heaven has been set before you. And yes you will stray again, but these waters before you will always show you the way back. These waters will always cleanse you from your sins and your transgressions. Come back to these waters, you come back to this congregation, you come back to this meal. Heaven everlasting is your reward.

And when you embrace this truth—the truth of your baptisms—and embrace this hope for the future kingdom of heaven here now on earth now, that moment in your life is also a huge huge wow moment. Born again, Jesus tells Nicodemus.

(Singing while moving from pulpit to baptismal font.)

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the robe and crown
Good Lord, show me the way!

O mothers, let's go down
Let's go down, come on down
Come on, mothers, let's go down
Down in the river to pray.

O children, let’s go down
Let’s go down, come on down
Come on children, let’s go down
Down in the river to pray.

(Placing my right hand in the font of water and then stepping into the congregation making the sign of the cross.)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.


Monday, April 29, 2019

Keeping The Doors Unlocked

Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA   
April 28, 2019
Pastor Robert McCarty

Preaching Texts:   John 20: 19-29

You come today to receive the blessing from Jesus. Every year on the second Sunday of Easter, Jesus ends the gospel lesson by blessing those who have not placed their fingers in the scars and seen his wounds and yet believe. You have experienced God in the breaking of bread, the reading of scripture, and the fellowship of the faithful. Yet this blessing is for you who missed out, like Thomas in the first half of the story, and still have come to know Jesus Christ as the Son of God.

I love this blessing, but this week, as I read this Gospel passage, my heart and attention turned to the fear of the disciples locked away in the room. Churches bombed in Sri Lanka last Sunday, Easter Sunday. A Synagogue attacked in California yesterday, in the midst of passover. Mosques in New Zealand attacked to a horrific extent. Today, I understand their fear. It may seem like God is under attack. Even fires at churches fit that motif. The truth is a lot more complicated.

Music concerts in Manchester (Aria Grande) and a huge outdoor musical festival in Las Vegas. We have had to deal with school shootings for twenty years. There was a bombing at the Olympic Festival concert in Atlanta in 1996, so another musical concert. You may also remember shootings at places of employment—recently that includes the newspaper in Baltimore, a shipping company in Chicago.

It is not just churches that are under threat. All of that which forms community and gathers people together is under attack. That which gives us joy, and purpose, and fellowship. If you understand joy, and purpose and fellowship as gifts from the Creator, then yes, God is under attack, and it is more than just the faithful who are at risk.

No wonder the disciples gather in fear. You might want to lock the doors as well, cloister yourselves together. Hide out. But the question is not how long can you hide for? (You can get anything delivered now.) The question is not how long can you hide for, but if you hide, what are you living for?

Life gains purpose and spirit by that which builds community and gathers people together. Joy comes from the fellowship, purpose comes from employment and education. And hope comes—along with other gifts—from the worship of God. Hope tells us we are stronger together than we are apart and that we are stronger praising God than we are bemoaning the pains of creation.

I know this topic is not for everyone, and I will be brief. For those of you who have these questions, I will listen to your questions and try to give some answers the next three weeks in our Rejoice Sunday school class. I will be there at 9 AM with coffee. (People will wander in from before 9 AM, at 9:10, even later at 9:20 AM. I do not guarantee there will be coffee if you come at 9:20 AM.) Whenever you come, we will give you a chance to voice your questions. I have a video that might help us. My older son introduced this video to me the includes Christopher Hitchens, who before his death was a notable author and atheist. He wrote a book called God is Not Great. Mr. Hitchens struggled with some of the same questions that St Augustine and Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Rabbi Harold Kushner struggled with. (Rabbi Kushner wrote the book Why do bad things happen to good people?)

That is what we will talk about next week. Why do bad things happen to good people? What does evil tell us about God? And your questions about Faith God Hope and Love.

Love often gets lost in all of this. Because of the love of God and because of the love we have at the church, places of worship place themselves in the middle of issues that matter. That makes us targets.

Churches placed themselves in the middle of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and that made them targets. Whenever there is war churches have a voice. Pastor Reynolds told me how during the last Iraq War, thirty Methodist Bishops went to Capitol Hill and said, “Don’t do this.” Churches and Mosques and Synagogues have reached out to immigrant communities for hundreds of years. Now, synagogues and churches and mosques are participating in interfaith dialogues to better understand and know one another, and some people don’t like that and what to stop it. 

A couple of years ago this congregation willingly struggled with the question about same-gender marriages, because it was a social issue that mattered. We ventured into that conversation even though we have a variety of opinions on the subject. As church we will struggle with issues that matter, and we will not be deterred by fear. What happens here matters, and builds community, strengthens fellowship. We call purpose, “mission.” Joy, hope love all of that happens here.

We will gather like the disciples gathered. We will keep the doors unlocked, and we will trust that Jesus will cut through all our angst and break into our presence. Just like he does today and bring us a moment of peace. He tells us all today, “My peace I give to you.”

As you notice, Thomas misses out on the first part of the gospel lesson, which reflects other people who have missed out on Today’s message and worship and blessing of peace. We pray for their presence here next week, and take a moment to invite them in.


Monday, April 8, 2019

Mary's Generosity

Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA   
April 7, 2019
Pastor Robert McCarty

Preaching Texts:   John 12: 1-8

Are you offended by this story of Mary anointing Jesus' feet and using her hair? The moment has a certain awkwardness to it. I suppose it might be different if Lazarus came up to Jesus with an expensive bottle of whiskey and raised a few fingers saying, “To your glory.” Believe it or not we have scriptural justification for this. Proverbs 31:6 (NRSV) states, “Give strong drink to the one who is perishing,” or more clearly from the New Living Translation, “Liquor is for the dying.”

If Lazarus came up to Jesus with a bottle of whiskey worth a year’s wages, we would read that as an extreme gesture of thanksgiving. After all, Jesus has just raised Lazarus from the dead. A year's wages gets you a top-shelf bottle of whiskey aged fifty years. You can picture Lazarus sitting down and pouring two glasses to toast Jesus, “To your glory.” Of course, if Jesus just pulled you out of the grave, what could ever repay such a gift. But then what if Lazarus then took the bottle and filled Jesus' glass to overflowing so that the expensive whiskey anointed Jesus' hands and fingers, and all those present could smell the aroma, and Lazarus kept on pouring. As he approached those final drops he lifted the bottle to Jesus' head and poured it on him, anointing him. Whiskey, by the way, has the Gaelic meaning of “water of life.” To those who do not know that Jesus is going to die, they may be offended. You might be offended by a description that mixes Jesus and whiskey. The Pharisees, those Pharisees present, would wink at each other, “See, he came eating and drinking, Look a glutton and a drunkard.” Again, biblical, that paraphrase comes from Matthew 11:19, when Jesus quotes what the religious elite say about him. If Lazarus had given Jesus a moment of brotherhood, it might slip by with less scrutiny. It would still be scrutinized, but less so than Mary anointing Jesus' feet with costly nard and using her hair to care for him before his death.

Today we have this description of generosity taken to extravagance. Today you hear a story of generosity that seems slightly uncomfortable. You witness intimacy and love, a public display of affection, between a man and a woman not married. At first people suspect it as an extravagant gift of thanksgiving, but Jesus explains the true intent. Mary anoints Jesus for his death. Truth be told, we are more comfortable with smaller gifts and tokens—like mugs. How many mugs have you received over the years? How many mugs have you given over the years?

My favorite mug—I have had it for twenty years, give or take—was given to me by my Uncle Tom for Christmas one year. I forget one detail, whether he gave it to me the year before he died from colon cancer or on the Christmas day on which he died from colon cancer. The doctor diagnosed my uncle early in the spring with stage four colon cancer that had metastasized to his liver. The first thing Tom did after his diagnosis was take a week vacation with his girlfriend, who was the mother of his youngest child. They went down to Florida. Then he returned to Vermont and fought like hell.

You have probably heard similar stories of people, who diagnosed with a terminal or near terminal disease, their first response is to take a trip of a lifetime— Make*A*Wish for adults. Sometimes they even splurge and go first class, though that doesn’t sound like my uncle. 

Make*A*Wish has had some extravagant requests over the years. You may remember that five years ago, a large portion of San Francisco turned out to watch “Batkid” fight crime on the streets. Batkid aka Miles Scott, who had leukemia, hit the magical five year anniversary of being cancer free. He is now ten years old living the life of a normal boy in Northern California

Sometimes, Make*A*Wish takes a simple request and goes all out. In 2006, doctors diagnosed Sam Farris with neuroblastoma, stage 4. He fought it for a year. Then, in the summer of 2007, oncologists scheduled Sam for a stem cell transplant. Sam loved playing baseball with his friends. When Make*A*Wish reached out to Sam before his stem cell transplant, Sam knew he could not play baseball, but he wished that his friends could play baseball in his backyard.

That is how Sam Farris ended up with a regulation Little League field in his backyard, complete with irrigation system and scoreboard. Make*A*Wish, and the Town of Mantachie, Mississippi, and ground crews from University of Mississippi and the local community college built Sam a regulation baseball field. They got donations of sod for the field, backstop, chain link fence, an irrigation system, and a scoreboard. Opening Day for Farris Field, Sam coached 18 of his friends against a junior varsity team. A neighbor sang the Star Spangled Banner; a local sports announcer called the game. (

Eight to ten years later, John Lassiter made a short documentary about Farris Field, and Sam Farris, still living, also cancer free, had a chance to relive the experience of his town building him a ball field. Make*A*Wish loves these stories of the dying pulled back to life. Not just Make*A*Wish, we love these stories too.

These stories of life and dying and generosity give us the best avenue to understand Mary’s generosity. How much would you do for a dying friend or family member? What extremes would you go to, if someone you knew had maybe only six months or six days to live? Mary gives Jesus an extravagant gift; also a rather intimate gift; deeply, deeply personal; love to an embarrassing extent. Probably more people besides Judas felt uncomfortable by what was taking place between Mary and Jesus. But Mary understands. She sees what Jesus has shown his followers. She gets it. Jesus will die and he has already done so much, healed the sick, fed the multitudes, raised her brother. Mary gets it.

Tom, my uncle, went Christmas shopping with his grown daughter. He wanted to pick out gifts with meaning. While shopping outside of Dartmouth, New Hampshire, they found a designer-labeled cotton men’s dress shirt that cost 130 dollars. Tom and daughter joked about what kind of guy needs a dress shirt that costs 130 dollars. This was twenty years ago—that same shirt probably costs 200 dollars today. Daughter’s Christmas gift to her father was that expensive dress shirt. I mentioned Tom died on Christmas day. When we went to Vermont for the funeral, she gave that shirt to my father. He still has it hanging in his closet.

It is a fine line between extravagance and generosity, and Jesus crosses that line full throttle.

Jesus gets it. You are dying. We are dying, maybe not like my uncle. Death serves both as metaphor, for he we are mired in sin, but also as literal truth. For everyone of us, our days are numbered. We want to live and play ball with our friends and make the world a better place, but we just do not know the number. We do not know how many days or months we have to live.

And so Jesus does something extravagant for you, and deeply personal, for you. Jesus does something--love to an embarrassing extent--for you. He dies, for you, for us. In doing so, Jesus lives in Mary’s generosity. Imagine if Jesus hoarded of himself and went back to Galilee and lived the somewhat normal life of a prophet. Imagine if he healed the multitudes that came to him, dazzled with wisdom those who tried to trick him up. If from this moment Jesus runs back to Galilee just to live out his days, then Mary has the pinnacle moment of the Gospel of John and it goes for nothing. And Mary gives the greater gift.

Instead, here is what happens six days later after Mary anoints Jesus: Jesus anoints you. You are anointed in Jesus death and resurrection. It is not nard. It is not whiskey. It is something more, something greater, something eternal. Jesus has pulled you up out of the grave and anointed you with this water of life, your baptism. 

So we live in this story that begins anew next week. The story of a people who were dying and were given new life by Christ Jesus. Come next Sunday and hear the story of a holy week and three days where death gives way to Holy life.


Monday, March 11, 2019

"Turn This Stone to Bread"

I planned on having wheat seed downstairs for us to plant for lent. We have packets of flower seeds instead. I could have bought a 50 pound bag of wheat from the co-op, but that seemed like a waste of 49 pounds of wheat seed.. The challenge of buying a pound of wheat seed would seem to be a first-world problem. One person I asked found it on Amazon, of course. But we still have soup downstairs, and we will have that fellowship together in a little bit and we will plant flower seeds instead of wheat.

And we have mason jars that we will give out like this one. When I was young, I remember we had these folders during lent where you would slide in a quarter for each of the 40 days of lent. Then at the end of lent, you would have $10 dollars to take the folders to church. The donation would go either to the Berks Mission District, or the Highlands Retirement Community, or Lutheran Hunger Ministries. I forget the charity, but I remember the folders.

These jars are for Lutheran World Hunger. You could put in a quarter a day, or you could put in $2 a day. I am planning on 89 cents a day, about the cost of a candy bar. Now, I do not eat a candy bar every day. But 89 cents time 40 days equals about $36 dollars. So I am giving up candy bars and putting the money in here to remind me how quickly candy bars add up. You can do the same with meatless mondays and place the money you would use for meat in the jar. The same holds true for sodas at McDonalds or coffee at Starbucks. 

I saw a connection between growing wheat and these mason jars collections. I saw time as the connection. How much you can collect a candy bar at the time becomes more visible in a mason jar. The time it takes to grow wheat and harvest it and make a loaf of bread becomes more visible when you have to grow the wheat. Because hunger still is one of the plagues of the world and the solution to hunger involves time.

The adversary tempts Jesus to turn stone into bread and the strange reality is many people want God to solve the problem of world hunger in similar fashion. Just turn stones into bread with a snap of the fingers, or an honest prayer. Feeding people takes time and the adversary plays with that reality and challenges Jesus and us as well. 

Today, our scripture invites us to define evil. The adversary of God places three temptations before Jesus. As you read scripture, you quickly realize that evil exists without bloodshed. No one dies in our passage. No war, no bloodshed, no sickness and the only one hungry is Jesus. We tend to view evil in terms of war, bloodshed, rape, sickness, disease, tornados, famine. We view evil, we define evil in terms of that which denies life. This provides a good starting point for our definition of evil. That which denies life. You heard me say starting point, which means more of a definition has to exist.

Besides that which denies life, how does evil function in our gospel passage. I would encourage you to listen to Jesus’ responses as we figure this out together.

“One does not live by bread alone.”

“Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”

“Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Jesus’ responses affirm trust and faith in God. Trust and faith in God and only God. 

“One does not live by bread alone.”

“Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”

The adversary tempts Jesus in three ways to turn away from the Father. It is not just about bread and it is not just about earthly kingdoms and it is not just about proving for all to see that I am indeed God’s chosen one. The adversary tempts Jesus in three ways to turn away from the Father and Jesus says, "No."

We can now add this to our definition. Evil: that which denies life as well as that which denies faith and trust in the one true God. That includes the challenge not to trust God as well as the challenge to trust and believe in something else.

That could make the tornadoes that ripped through Alabama last weekend a double whammy. It could or maybe not. Twenty-three people died from the storm, including children and families. That which denies life, matches the first part of our definition. To be frank, the temptation following destruction and death is to doubt God. But also in that place and time one has opportunity to give witness. In the aftermath of the tornado, people gave witness to God.

Miles Tatum, went into a closet with his two sons. The closet was full of clothes, winter coats, outside the closet a bow and arrow hung on the wood paneling wall. Outside, the wind howled while trees twisted and snapped in the wind. After the storm passed, Miles and his sons came out of their shelter and saw the damage of the structure. It was still standing, mostly. He walked with journalists through the chaos and said, “The only reason this part of the barn is here, I am convinced, is that the Lord saved us and my kids.”

Given opportunity, the temptation, to see only destruction, Miles focussed on rescue and on God and gave him the glory. I know some of you nod your head in agreement, all the while thinking about those who perished and those who grieved. What would they say?

Elizabeth and I watched NBC news on Monday night. In a day and age of six second sound bites, we were captivated (our hearts were captured) by the family that talked about their ten-year-old daughter who had spent the night with a friend the next town over. NBC evening news has only 21 minutes of broadcast time. They spent two full minutes of that allotment talking with these grieving parents whose young daughter died. Lester Holt, NBC’s anchor said to them, “You are a family of deep faith, is that what you’re hanging on to?” and Ashley Thornton's response twenty-four hours into their grief was touching “All in the Lord. The only thing getting us through, that and friends too.”

In the midst of tragedies that break our hearts, come these opportunities to give witness to God and for us to hear the witness of people who find strength and hope in God. Personally, it seems to me that Jesus has it easy here. If you come face to face with the devil, then you know to work against the temptations he offers you. 

You and I often have to work against temptations presented by friends and family. The most challenging temptation you will ever face is a friend or even a family member who says, "why bother?" And they will blame the problems of the world on God rather than on greed, and they will sell you the illusion that we all should live forever, or live long and prosper comfortably. 

“Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Some test God that way and they tell God, “I will worship you and believe in you if you make my life easy, simple.” This forgets that our hardships make our testimony all the more impactful. This forgets that our hardships call us into the lives of friends and neighbors (and strangers too) when they face challenges and when they face temptations. In these times and before them, God gives faith that endures.

In the book of Job, the adversary of God takes everything away, all his livestock, all his hired hands, and in a great windstorm, even all of Job’s children. Job’s body is covered with sores and he says to his friends, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Job’s friends actually discouraged him from such faith. Job persists, “The Lord Giveth and the Lord take away, bless be the name of the Lord.”

“One does not live by bread alone.”

“Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”

“Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

To be frank, the adversary of God here only gives a first glimpse of those who will call on Jesus to turn away. Pharisees and scribes will critique him, try to trip him up and prove him wrong. His closest followers will argue about who is the greatest. When he hears about the cross, Peter will say “This must never happen to you.” Jesus will turn his back on his friend and say, get behind me satan. The disciples, the twelve will all abandon him as he walks to Golgotha and the cross. Jesus does not turn away from God. He turns and faces the cross squarely and walks on.

God does not promise an easy life. God does not promise a happy life. But God gives (blesses) you with life. And in that gift of life you experience moments, precious moments, of grace, moments of joy, and precious moments of love. Those precious moments are blessing upon blessing. And when they come in the midst of hardship and suffering, the value of those moments grows immensely. God is full of grace and mercy, and our worship and study of scripture helps you to see that.

Today I give thanks for Jesus faith that lives in you. For faith that lives in Miles Tatum along with Ashley and David Thornton down on Alabama. We give thanks for bread that feeds the world and our hands in the ministry of God.

One does not live by bread alone, but by every word, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.


Monday, February 25, 2019

Love Your Enemies

Sermon Of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton, VA
February 24, 2019
Pastor Robert McCarty

Preaching Text:   Luke 6: 27-38

Wow! What a gospel text. What a gospel challenge: Loving your enemies, loving those who disagree with you. This would have been a good gospel text either right before or right after Valentine’s day. Imagine the greeting card with the scripture verse: "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them." Such a card may or may not be a best seller.

Some of you may have offered prayers this last week on behalf of our brothers and sisters in the Methodist Church. (Maybe today as well.) They face a difficult conversation that the Lutheran Church went through 10 years ago regarding “official policy” towards Christians who are in same gender relationships and similar questions of life, scripture, and fellowship together. We offer our prayers and recognize the challenge we face when people of faith disagree with one another. I wonder how the preacher this morning at their gathering in Saint Louis will handle this text. (I wonder) what he or she will say about this gospel truth from Jesus. Jesus tells us to love our enemies as if loving our friends and those close to us was an easy thing. 

For what it is worth, people of faith disagree on many issues. Fairness calls on us to shine a light on disagreements and not act like this is just a Methodist problem. Christians disagree on issues of immigration and refugees. We disagree on issues of guns. We disagree on issues of race, the name of the high school, worship times, Supreme Court nominees, frequency of holy communion and how we spend money, whether or not Jello is dessert or salad. The last one we can laugh about, the others not so much.

Sometimes, I wonder if people might find it easier to love their enemies, typically those they cannot see and never met. I wonder if it is easier to love your enemies than those close to them who disagree with them. Considering it, I have to say "probably not." Most people probably work hard at avoiding their enemies. At the end of the first Harry Potter book, Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster says something to that affect when he praises a rather bumbling first year student Neville Longbottom. “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but jut as much to stand up to our friends.”

Jesus tells us to love enemies. The fact that I married a daughter of the Missouri Synod probably doesn’t count. There was an episode of Cheers that poked fun at that when Woody realizes his fiancee is from the other side of the Lutheran fence. Woody Harrelson, apparently, is not was not Lutheran. Bruce WIllis is Lutheran. As is Gary Larson, creator of the Far Side cartoons. Also, Collin Kapernick, who raised a maelstrom when he kneeled for the national anthem.  Kapernick baptized in a Methodist Church, confirmed in the Lutheran Church, attended a baptist church while in college at Nevada. We can all claim him or disavow him. Then we can disagree about that as well.

Love your enemies—not that Kapernick is anyone’s enemy. Though our current national climate seems to create enemies rather easily and makes us wary of the people around us. I pray whoever preaches in Saint Louis this morning finds the right words to tiptoe through that reality. Who are our enemies? I remember another gospel story--the one about the good Samaritan. Jesus and a follower get into a discussion about the greatest commandment. "You shall love your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your self and your neighbor as yourself." And this one follower asks Jesus, well who is my neighbor. What follows is the story of the Good Samaritan. If we could just ask Jesus, “Who is my enemy?”

That might be a dangerous question to ask anyone, but especially Jesus. And we know the crowd around him would have their own answers. Rome is the enemy. The soldiers are the enemy. We always hear about the scribes and the Pharisees who opposed Jesus, and we wonder how close they might come to the enemy category. We also have the obvious answers: Devil, Satan, or Sin. 

Even without our asking Jesus gives some suggestions for who the enemy might be. Some of Jesus’ description you might expect. Those who hate, curse and abuse you. “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you.” I find the mixture of bless and curse amusing, to flip curse into blessing. Some of you remember Julia. She could be colorful at times and had a few colorful stories working at the central office for the school. She had a story about I guess one of the school superintendent that she worked for getting verbally chewed out by a woman and member of the community who was irate about something. He had enough and told her bluntly, “Well this is what I say and that’s the final word on the subject.” Her retort was “Kiss my ___” (you can fill in the blank). To which he replied, “Now, now, this is no time for romance.” "Bless those who curse you." 

“Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” We expect those enemies. The surprise comes not in the who but the what. Bless them, Pray for the, Do good, love.” That seems unexpected, and Jesus goes on, "Give to everyone who begs from you." That doesn’t sound like an enemy. "And if anyone takes your goods, do not ask for them again.” Do we view those who take our possessions our resources as enemies? Maybe. Maybe Jesus calls us out here. As if to underline this point Jesus goes on later. “But love your enemies, do good and lend, expecting nothing in return.” Love those who take, take, take from you.

And then Jesus gives us his rationale, which we should already know. Does not your father in heaven do the same. “Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” Probably we more easily remember the Matthew version of this. “for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Or maybe your grandmother put it this way, “Kill them with kindness" (sickeningly-sweet, syrup-laden kindness).

This gospel teaching from Jesus about loving your enemies comes to us the same week when the news tells us about two ISIS brides trying to return home with children. One wants to return home to England, the other to Alabama. Not only do we struggle with loving our enemies, we protest when others love the enemy. As if love is a mutually exclusive arrangement. You can love one but not both. I heard the United Kingdom stripped their daughter of her nationality and refused to accept her back. The United States case has entered the court system.

This teaching is hard, perhaps the hardest in the Bible. Perhaps, you find it too hard to love your enemies. Maybe you have a good idea who your enemies are, besides the man or woman who cut your off on the interstate or the driver who gave you the one finger salute for whatever reason. When we recognize the difficulty of loving our enemies, it gives us all the more reason for keeping our friends. To work at not allowing our disagreements to define who is with us and who is against us. In the end, we all have different ideas about how to make this world a better place as well as how to make our community a better place for our children and our grandchildren. Keep in mind, our children will watch us disagree and they will learn from our behavior.

Jesus call to love our enemies, more than anything reminds us how difficult it is to love our friends and those close to us. So Jesus breaks it down into simple steps. Pray for them, Bless them, Do good for them, Give and expect nothing in return. For God has sent you both sunshine and God has sent you both rain and God has given to both of you his son Jesus. And Jesus has loved you to death and bore the cross with kindness. We sometimes forget that Jesus did not bear the cross for his friends, he bore the cross for sinners, all sinners whose actions oppose the will of God. And the last image of this gospel text displays the generosity of God. 

"Forgive and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap." The image is of God pouring an immense amount of grain into your lap. Think of it like a cup running over, joyful excess. Because the joy of the Christ gift comes to us not in his death but in his resurrection. 

We divide people. I pray for our Methodist friends who fear nothing but division is possible. I pray for them knowing some day an issue will pop up in the Lutheran Church that will threaten to divide us. With our disagreements, we divide people into camps and tribes and factions. Christ and God has the power to unite us again and teach us how to pray for others, bless others, do good to others and love.

Bless be God who saves and loves and unites in peace.