A Golden Rule?
by Louise Westfall
Recently I had coffee with one of the young adults who regularly worship here. She spoke appreciatively of the church in which she grew up, but then came the kicker: It always felt as if I had to balance a book on my head; be very careful, sit up straight, and don’t shift your balance. I couldn’t relax, because if I did, my life might tumble down around me. I’ve paraphrased Sky’s description with her permission because it expressed a feeling often associated with church. There’s an expectation to be on your best behavior. Don’t run; don’t talk too loudly. Put on your very best game face. Pay attention. Face forward. Sit still.
Do you know what she means? Let’s try it–can you balance a Bible on your head as you sit there? This is something you can try at home too! [everyone tries it; encourage kids, soloists, etc] Hold it! Hold it! I’m going to read the scripture lesson: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you…give to everyone who begs from you…do to others as you would have them do to you…do good…Whoops!
It’s hard to hear the radical love of Jesus when we’re concentrating primarily on maintaining an upright posture and rigid spine. We’re confronted with the impossibility of that kind of love for one thing. There’s no way I can love like that! We’re distracted by the effort it takes to keep up appearances–everyone can see when the Bible comes careening off your head. When church gets bogged down in rules and regulations–when we “major in the minors”–we risk missing the good news Jesus demonstrated as the unconditional, boundary-breaking, life-giving love of God. So get those Bibles off your head, open them up to the sixth chapter of Luke, verse 27, take a deep breath and hear God’s Word to you and me. [Luke 6:27-38]
Jesus’ command to love your enemies has got to be the most difficult expectation of Christian faith. The notion that we are supposed to “do good” to those who hate us is beyond counterintuitive. I always think it’s important to remind us that “doing good” to those who hurt us is not the same as being a doormat; the worst (and frankly, most dangerous) advice to a partner in an abusive relationship is to urge them on the basis of faith to forgive and take them back. Yes, love your enemy. But sometimes love means protecting yourself or another vulnerable person from someone who will do them harm. Sometimes love is setting boundaries for behavior that can’t be excused or swept under the rug. Jesus chose the way of the cross, but does not demand self-annihilation for those who would be his followers.
But it doesn’t take a biblical scholar to interpret this text as anything but a directive to love others, even those who are mean, selfish, in your face, and demanding. Be like God, Jesus said–kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Merciful to the undeserving.
A ministry colleague and friend in another state, writing about this very text, offered the insight that it is probably easier to love theoretical enemies than it is actual individuals with whom we interact. From this very pulpit I’ve exhorted us to love Tucker Carlson, for example. (Joe Rogan too). We pray for the Russians and Chinese as well as our own leaders, and that all the nations of the world (even ones we designate as “enemies”) will know peace and justice and human flourishing. But truth to tell, that’s a little more high-minded than thinking kindly towards the guy who cuts me off in traffic (and since a recent study identified Colorado drivers as among the worst in the country, that may be a more relevant reference than a Fox news commentator I’ll never meet in person).
And neither of these examples really get to the heart of loving those “beloved enemies,” family and friends who you know well enough to hurt, to have disappointed, to whom fiery words were spoken that won the argument but burned the opponent, the familiar folks whose forgiveness we take for granted, the harbored resentment which sticks in the throat or memory, blocking release. Love those people, Jesus said.
Love those people who inhabit tent encampments all over our city. Not long ago, I had to step around a couple of skinny white teenagers sitting outside their tent and thereby blocking the sidewalk. The woman was sipping wine from a paper cup (it was 10am), and the man was half-smiling through hazy eyes. The ground around them was littered with half-eaten sandwiches, dirty masks, scrunched up water bottles and Kleenex, and odd clothing items–a sock, a wadded-up t-shirt. So help me God, my visceral reaction was disgust and frustration at the complexities around being unhoused. But I’d been studying this text for my sermon. So instead of walking around them, I slowed my steps, and smiling beneath my mask, said cheerfully, “Good morning you two! How’s it going.” The woman set up straight and did a double take. “What?! You’re the first person who has spoken to us in four days. Thank you. And good morning to you too!” Of course I’m not pretending this simple gesture changed anything at all about their lives. But maybe it changed my perspective so that I could see them not as threats, not as lazy bones wasting space, but as humans, siblings who Jesus loves…and so should I. (though I don’t know if I could have followed Jesus if they had asked me for my laptop…)
Jesus' command to love your enemies has got to be the most difficult expectation of Christian faith.
Love your enemies…do good to those who hate you…give to everyone who begs from you…expect nothing in return…be kind…be merciful. Frankly, I think these acts of grace and generosity are impossible. Impossible, that is, until you’ve experienced them yourself. Until you know that terrifying vulnerability of need (be it hunger for food or rent money or friendship or forgiveness). Until you remember how it feels to be small or weak or backed in a corner or made to balance a book on your head. Friends, when we connect with those human realities, we discover a floodgate inside that opens up to let divine love and acceptance wash over us. Love produces love and multiplies it beyond calculation. It’s not distributed according to one’s deserving; it’s poured out according to one’s need.
At the pinnacle of Christian ethics (and notably the ethics of many other religions) is the Golden Rule. Do to others as you would have them do to you. Note that it’s not transactional (do to others as they have done to you, tit for tat, give and take in equal proportions). Nor is it conditional (do to others if they do to you, and be on guard if they have not). The Golden Rule is intended to connect us with our common humanity. Treat street people the way you would like to be treated when you’re in a new place, away from home. Act towards people in need the way you would like to be treated by the financial aid officer of the college to which your kid was accepted. Bless the people who question your motives or assume the worst in you. Contribute your hard-earned money to people who need it and can’t pay it back. Instead of flipping off the guy who cuts you off in traffic, send up a quick prayer that he gets to his destination safely and gets medication to lower his blood pressure. Reach out to a person with whom you have a long-standing grudge with the simple invitation to talk over a cup of coffee. Express curiosity rather than judgment when talking with those who see the world exactly opposite from you. And dear, dear friends, may we see the smile tugging at Jesus’ lips when he concluded this teaching by reminding his followers that the Most High God is kind to the ungrateful and wicked–Jesus’ eyes recognizing them all in his loving gaze. You and me, too, sometimes ungrateful and wicked…yet always and forever beloved.
At the beginning of this sermon, we tried balancing the Bible on our heads and found it exhausting, tension-producing and very, very limiting. I want to end this sermon with a gospel experience, and the way God’s love unlocks our own. So take a deep breath. And another one. Sit back. Let your hands fall open. Look to the right and smile at whomever you see. Look to the left and smile. Turn all the way around and smile at Seth in the sound booth. Naw, you can’t balance the Bible on your head like this. Even better: you become the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth. Thanks be to God!