Sermon: 4th Sunday after Epiphany

February 3, 2013

A rabbi once asked his students, “How do you know when the night has passed and the day has begun?”

One student answered, “I know! It’s when you can tell the difference between the leaves of the fig tree and the leaves of the olive tree.”

“No,” the teacher said.

Another student offered, “I know! It is when you can tell the difference between a sheep and a dog coming down the road.”

“No,” the teacher said.

None of the rabbi’s students knew. The rabbi said, “When you can look into your enemy’s eyes and see there your sister or your brother, then you know that the darkness has passed and a new day has begun.”

I first heard this story from Bishop Younan of Palestine and Jordan when he was visiting the Lutheran seminary in Chicago a few years ago. He was talking about the plight of the Palestinian Christians in Gaza and the Left Bank. He told us that 40% were unemployed. He talked about the illegal bulldozing of Palestinian homes, and the rarity of obtaining building permits. He talked about treaties ignored and promises broken. He told many stories of how our U.S. government and American right-wing religious groups participate in the ongoing oppression of Arab Christians and Muslims who live in Gaza to facilitate their own agendas. And, most painfully to me, he spoke of the general apathy of the majority of the world’s people toward those who are suffering. It made me wonder how he could bear to do the work that he does, speaking daily of hope and justice to a people who have depleting supplies of both, and challenging those of us who have power but do not use it to bring about justice for those who have none.

And yet he spoke to us as sisters and brothers, not hurling angry or violent words at us, not speaking ill of his Jewish or Muslim neighbors. He spoke of how the three faiths who call Jerusalem the Holy City–Islam, Judaism, and Christianity–must lead the way toward reconciliation and peace, for assuredly the politicians will not. He spoke of the ongoing need for forgiveness, and how forgiveness is the true mark of love, which our second lesson reminds us is what produces hope and faith, our response to love. I do not know how he does it.

It is easy for me to imagine his wanting to inflict pain on those who cause suffering for the flock he tends. I think for most of us it isn’t much of a challenge to think of people we would like to see in pain. Even if you yourself don’t want to inflict the torture, you wouldn’t mind their experiencing it, if only so that they would understand the kind of pain they have caused others.

It is hard, when we think of those people, to remember that most-quoted of Biblical verses: John 3:16. God so loved the WORLD that he gave his only begotten son.” God so loved the world. Not just those we love, or those we think deserve to be loved. The world. Recently in confirmation class there was some discussion about whether or not Hitler or Osama bin Laden would be in Heaven. Of course, there is no way of knowing the answer, but if you think you do, I invite you to consider today’s Gospel text.

This is a continuation of last week’s Gospel lesson, when Jesus began teaching in his hometown of Nazareth. In last week’s lesson, all the eyes in the synagogue were fixed on him, and all he’d done was read a lesson from Isaiah! Then he sat down and said, “Today these words have been fulfilled in your hearing.” Home run! The crowd was thrilled! The Messiah was coming to bring good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, sight to the blind! All that they’d longed for was now coming true! And it was their own Jesus, Jesus whose bloody knees they might have bandaged when he was a kid, whose diapers they might have changed! Little Jesus was all grown up now and was going to put Nazareth on the map! If at that moment he’d said, “Now, let’s go overthrow the wretched Romans and all others who have been oppressing our people!” no doubt the crowd would have risen up and followed him right then and there.

But Jesus didn’t say that. He did utter a few well-chosen words, but they were the kind of words that would have made Jesus’ press secretary quit on the spot if he’d had one. He starts out well—picking local heroes, Elijah and Elisha, to talk about. Normally playing up these guys would be good strategy. But of all the stories he could have told, Jesus picked the strangest ones. Elijah won a fabulous showdown against 400 priests of the pagan god Ba’al. But does Jesus mention that? Noooooo. Instead he picks a story in which Elijah bypasses all the starving widows in Israel in order to help someone normally counted as one of their enemy neighbors—a widow in Zaraphath.

Jesus picks out an equally troubling story to tell about Elisha. He points out that instead of healing of all the lepers in Israel, Elisha healed Namaan, a Syrian leper. Why on earth is Jesus talking about God’s prophets walking past needy Israelites in order to give aid and comfort to the enemy? What is he trying to prove?

A central tenet of our Christian faith is that God is love. And because God is love, then any power who gives us the O.K. to hurt someone is in fact, not God, but an idol, a god of our own making. If we trust in a god who says it’s ok to hurt someone, it can only be a god we have made up to justify our hurting people–or our desire to do so. Because God, the true God, is Love. This is the message that Jesus was preaching to his hometown crowd that day, and it almost got him thrown off a cliff. It was not a popular message then, and it still isn’t today, because the fact is that we need that other god of our own making to justify our thoughts and actions.

Whoever it may be that you want to hurt, that you imagine burning in hell, that you think deserves to be in pain, you probably have good reason to feel that way. The thing is, when we reason that God hates those we think deserve to be hated, we have made ourselves enemies of God. We’ve characterized exactly who God is not! Yes, God hates it when we hurt others, but God never comes to the point of hating us. God is Love, remember? God never comes to the point of wanting to do us harm, or to do anyone harm, not even Sadaam Hussein, or that one guy at work, or the Israeli army or Palestinian suicide bombers. God is love, even to the point of loving God’s own enemies. That’s what Jesus came to show us on the cross.

It sounds crazy, I know, but it is the amazing grace we sing about, that one that saved a wretch like me. It’s hard for us to understand grace until we come to see that we have acted as enemies of God. It’s not until you and I see that we are God’s enemies precisely by bowing to the false gods who support our hatred of others that we grasp the enormity of God’s compassion and care. God’s love for God’s enemies turns out, in fact, to be love for you and me. We are Jesus’ enemies when we refuse to extend God’s love to our enemies. Ironically, it is when we recognize our own enmity toward God that we grow in faith. When we see our own guilt, we begin to understand God’s saving work. And we are in good company.

Consider the author of today’s second reading, St. Paul. Before he became a missionary and wrote a bunch of letters that made him famous, he was literally an enemy of the early Christians. He hunted them down, wanted them dead. But God loved him so much that God sought him out, won him over, and empowered him to preach this crazy faith too! God looked into his eyes and saw there the eyes of a brother.

And today the darkness is dispelled again as Jesus looks into our eyes with compassion and forgiveness, seeing not enemies but sisters and brothers. Jesus joins us once again to feed and embrace us, to claim us as his own, so that from our head to our toes we may once again know God’s love. And because we have been seen and known for exactly who we are—and loved anyway—we can pass on that greatest of gifts, love. We can look into the eyes of our enemies and see there our sisters and our brothers, and night can end, and a new day can begin. Thanks be to God! Amen.

~Pastor Susan Schneider

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