Epiphany 7C, 2019 – February 24, 2019

Do to others as you would have them do to you.  Luke 6:31

            It was the fall of 1963.  At eight years old I’d been promoted to Miss Hanies’ Fourth grade class at Lincoln School. With her low, deep voice that meant business, she had an aura of authority about her.  School was no longer a time of playing and fooling around.  There was work to be done and except for a few, we delighted in the new seriousness. Over a corner of the blackboard, a sign hung that would govern our behavior all year long.  In neat 4th grade cursive, teacher handwriting, a calligraphy style all its own, Miss Hanies had written: “The Golden Rule:  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Stepping into that classroom brought us one step closer to adulthood.  We were growing up and under Miss Hanies’ watchful and just eyes, we felt secure.  If the golden rule prevailed, all would be right with the world and we would be safe.  It wasn’t long before the good behavior of the first uncertain days with a new teacher wore off.  More than a few times we were command to put our heads on our desks, contemplate the rule and how we had broken it.  With the exception of some occasional lapses, the world of Miss Haines’ classroom was one of order and security.

            One of the issues we have with today’s Gospel is that we relegate it to the past – perhaps a fourth-grade classroom, or a time of innocence when it was safe and easy to love our enemies, bless those who cursed us, turn the other cheek and give to all who begged.  Now-a-days, to take this Gospel seriously would be crazy.  We hear “do not judge” but would we enroll our children in a day care center that doesn’t have at least a four-star internet review, or entrust our life savings to an investment firm with a history of poor management.  Jesus says, “turn the other check”, does that mean an abused spouse should stay and take the violence?  And the command to give to those who beg – what about addicts?   Doesn’t giving to them enable their addiction?  This seems to be a Gospel for a fourth-grade classroom, not the real world.  In the real world another rule prevails, “Do onto others BEFORE they do unto you.”  In the real world, “loving your enemies” allows your enemies to get over on you.  In the real world, there are LIMITS to everything, especially love.

            In spite of the Golden Rule hanging over us, the real world entered our classroom.  It came in the form of a gentle rapping on our door on the afternoon of November 22nd.  Miss Haines opened it, stepped out into the hall where the Principal was waiting.  When she stepped back in, tears streaming down her face, she said, “President Kennedy has been shot.”  For her, us and millions of others – perhaps for some of you, the time of innocence ended.  As it does for every generation – Kent State, September 11th, Sandy Hook, Parkland…. The Golden Rule is no longer enough.  The real world demands so much more?  Or does it?

            You see, the problem with the real world, where it’s “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” where violence begets violence, hatred feeds hatred and fear reigns, is that there’s little possibility for anything else — only fear and alienation, the vengeance of anger and the threat of despair. There’s no room for grace and forgiveness, no place for love and hope.  The world gets divided into two camps – the good guys, our friends, the ones like us and the bad guys, our enemies, those different from us.  The good are to be trusted and the bad rejected. Unfortunately, life is not so neat.  As Lutherans, with our understanding of the depth of sin, we know this.   Martin Luther taught we are simultaneously “saint and sinner.”  He once said, “When I look at myself, I don’t see how I can be saved.  But when I look at Christ, I don’t see how I can be lost.”

            So what Jesus Christ is asking us to do in today’s Gospel is to do what God always does, to do what Jesus did — to love the unlovable, those who are annoying and difficult, those who don’t deserve it, even our enemies. Note, Jesus didn’t command us to like all these difficult people, but to love them.  Liking is instinctive and emotional.  Loving is a matter of the will.  Liking is reciprocal, loving, not necessarily so.  Friends like each other.  But a parent loves a wayward child, even if their love is not received or returned.  I remember when my son Todd was about 4 years old and did something that really annoyed my husband, John and so he gave him a time out.  As John led him to the time-out step, Todd boldly declared to his Dad, “You’re not my friend anymore. “I don’t like you.”  To which John replied, “That’s O.K.  I’m still your Father and I’ll always love you anyway.”  In the same way, God loves us anyway. 

            Love is not a reciprocal thing – that is, if you love me, I will love you.  Nor is it a legal deal or contract.  Love gives more than it expects to get, goes far beyond halfway and is willing to risk getting hurt.  Such love confounds the world for it’s a reflection of God.  Such was the love of the waiting father who runs down the road to welcome his prodigal home.  It’s the love behind the nonviolent power of Ghandi who challenged an Empire, the love revealed in the words and actions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and fueled the leadership of Nelson Mandela.  It was the love present in every act of mercy by Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day.  It’s the love that forgives us, feeds us in bread and wine, saves us and empowers us to love one another.  Such loving can be difficult which is why Jesus commands us to love and in doing so, by God’s grace, the “I ought to love” turns into “I love.”  Such love boomerangs back to us in spades. 

            A story.  Sadhu Sundar Singh, an Indian missionary, and a companion were traveling through a high mountain pass in the Himalayans in the midst of dropping temperatures and a now storm.  They stumbled across an injured man lying in the snow.  Sadhu wished to stop and help the unfortunate man, but his companion refused saying, “We shall lose ourselves with him; let us hurry on!”  While Sadhu would not think of letting the man died in the ice and snow, his companion bade him farewell.  Then Sadhu lifted the dying man on his shoulders and with great effort, slogged on in the storm.  The heat from his body gradually began to warm up the half-frozen man on his back and he revived.  Soon both were walking together side by side, helping each other find their way through the storm.  Suddenly they stumbled over something in the snow.  It was Sadhu’s former companion, dead, frozen by the cold.

            It’s now the winter of 2019 – over 50 years since I sat in Miss Haines’ fourth grade class.  Fifty years during which the world has sought to erase the golden rule without success.  It’s not because of us, for no matter how hard we try we fall short.  As Luther said, “when I look at myself, I don’t see how I can be saved.”  Even our most gallant efforts are not enough, they fall short in wisdom, in will-power, in effort.  “But,” says Luther, “when I look at Christ – I don’t see how I can be lost.”  Know the “I” includes you and me and the whole broken and blessed world.  For Jesus took on all the violence and hatred, the fears and tears, the whole mess of it, carried it with him as he was hoisted upon the cross where he died with lost sons and broken daughters, and with fourth graders wondering why their teacher is crying. Then Jesus dares to loves through death into life, from cross into resurrection, from darkness into light. In this light we can carry each other, we walk side by side, and together find our way through the storm.  We dare to love.  Through her tears and the way she gently explained the unexplainable to her fourth graders, that’s exactly what Miss Haines did.  Amen.


St John’s Lutheran Church Phoenixville