Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
For those of you who are joining us for the first time this winter, we’ve been making our way through a sermon series on Q&A (or questions and answers) with Jesus from the gospel of Luke. Today’s text, like others we’ve read, actually includes a few questions in a row. And while some questions in this series have clearly been challenges from Jesus, today’s questions bring us words of comfort. Listen again. “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?” “Of course not, Jesus, don’t be absurd!” is the answer to both clearly rhetorical questions. Parents love their children, know how to meet their needs, and want to give them good things. And this is Jesus’ point, as he continues with his third question: “if you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give ... to those who ask him?” God loves us more than we can imagine, loves us so much – as our second Scripture reading remind us – that we are called children of God. So imagine the love a parent has for a child and then multiply it, to the nth degree – that’s the love God has for us.
Granted, we may not be wild about the use of the adjective “evil” to describe ourselves as parents. I looked up the Greek, hoping to soften the blow a bit, I confess. But it’s about what you’d expect. Poneroi, plural of poneros, is a word we generally do translate into English as bad, wicked, evil. Outside of the New Testament the same word seems occasionally to imply being full of hardship or harassed (and the parenting connections there, for some of you, might be tempting!), but the New Testament examples are pretty clearly just synonyms of “bad.” Still, I presume Jesus is primarily highlighting the contrast here between us and God. If God is purely good, in every respect, then compared to that level of good, we clearly fall short. And perhaps this even helps our understanding of the text, rather than hurting it. After all, Jesus’ main point here is clear enough. Even we, who are mortal and flawed, know how to be good parents to our children. And if we, as imperfect human mothers and fathers, know how to give our children what they need, “how much more will the heavenly Father give…?”
Now, if you were reading along with our Scripture passage this morning, or listening carefully, you may have noticed I’ve left a few things out so far. First of all, it began with those beautiful lines many of us know as a song of praise, “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.” It continued: “For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Luke 11:9-10) Again these are comforting words… at least they would be if we could believe them, right? I expect I’m not the only one who has sung this song for years, but still found myself wondering about these promises from time to time. As analogies for prayer, these are powerful images: asking, seeking, knocking. But what if we find ourselves in situations where we’ve been doing our part – the asking, and seeking, and knocking – but the prayers don’t seem to be answered? At the very least, we can’t seem to find any evidence of receiving, or finding, or of those promised open doors.
But this is where a close reading of the biblical text is so important. Notice, Jesus doesn’t say: “ask and you will receive everything you ask for… seek, and you will find just what you are looking for… knock, and that particular door you imagine yourself walking through will be opened to you.” No, he says “ask, seek, knock…” and then what is the promise he offers? It comes in that final verse again: “If you … know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” So it’s not necessarily the particular gift we request that we’re promised. But it is a tremendous gift, nonetheless. It’s the gift of God’s presence with us. The gift of God’s Spirit, no matter what happens in the particular situations about which we’ve been asking, and seeking, and knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door.
When we hear what Jesus is really saying here, we won’t confuse the act of prayer with a vending machine type transaction – insert prayer; receive just what you want. Nor will we confuse Jesus’ message with a gospel of success. In fact, elsewhere in the gospels Jesus warns that his disciples will face incredibly hard times, will be persecuted for their choice to follow him, even. He’s not saying I’ll give you anything you want, anything you ask for. He’s not even saying he’ll spare us suffering. He’s saying, whatever you ask for, you can be sure you’ll get me, as part of the deal.
The gift of God’s presence. We don’t have to look far in Scriptures to find reminders that God is with us, through any circumstances we might face. In the Old Testament, Yahweh led the children of Israel out of their captivity in Egypt, clearly visible with them in pillars of fire and cloud. And God continued to make his presence known to the Israelites in their tabernacle, in their temple, through the gift of the law and the voices of the prophets. In the New Testament, Jesus is presented to us from before his birth as Immanuel, which literally means “God with us.” And throughout the gospels and letters of Paul we find reminders of that eternal presence. Reminders such as this one from Romans: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
How much love does God have for us? That much. So much that there is absolutely nothing we could ever face, that we’d be facing it without God’s love holding us close throughout.
Baptism Sundays certainly present us with a wonderful opportunity to reflect on that love. For once we are marked as a child of God in baptism, we are invited to remember always that we are God’s own. In every moment and in every situation life sends our way, we can recall we have been baptized and claimed as God’s beloved. And who among us doesn’t need those reminders from time to time? To help us keep our bearings, when times are hard. To remind us who and whose we are, when temptation strikes. To motivate us toward greater generosity when it would be all too easy to be selfish. To bring us comfort, when we are faced with tragedy.
In baptism we are marked – did you hear it? – marked as Christ’s own forever, and forever is quite a long time, as it turns out. Today this beautiful little girl we baptized is less than a year old. But someday she will be a 5 or 6-year-old ball of energy bounding off to her first day of kindergarten. And someday that same smile that can light up a room will be found on the face of a teenager holding her first set of car keys in her hand. And someday Esther will be a young woman eagerly heading off to college, or nervously interviewing for her first job. She will remain God’s beloved, she will remain Christ’s own in each and every one of those moments, just as we all are. And if she stands in a church like this one to be married someday, or becomes a parent herself, she can continue to take comfort in reminders that her journey of faith had its start here at the baptismal font. Even when she takes her final breath, she will belong to the God who loves her in life, in death, in life beyond death. If raised to understand the importance of this simple act we have celebrated with her today, Esther can find joy and comfort in her baptism her whole life long.
Now I ask you. Which of us – parents, godparents, grandparents, church family – which of us, looking at this beautiful baby girl, wouldn’t do everything in our power to give her what she needs? In fact, that’s what we’ve all promised today. Because we’ve promised to help her understand God’s love for her. And if we, who are imperfect, can get that part right, “how much more will the heavenly Father give” her?
And not just her, but us all.
“See what love [God] the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God – and that is what we are.” (I John 3:1)
Thanks be to God! Amen.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
We return this morning to our sermon series on Q&A (or questions and answers) with Jesus from the gospel of Luke. In this short passage we’ve just heard, Jesus asks three questions in a row. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?... If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?... If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you?” (Luke 6:32-34) All three questions make a similar point. Are we loving, good, and generous only in situations where others have proven themselves loving, good, and generous to us? If so, Jesus says, there’s nothing terribly impressive about that. Quid pro quo, one favor in return for another, you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours – much of the world operates this way. Or, in Jesus’ words, “even sinners do the same.” Jesus holds us to a far higher standard, with far more challenging requirements: “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” (Luke 6:35)
Oh, is that all?
“Love your enemies” is right up there with the most challenging things Jesus asks of his followers, isn’t it? If they are our enemies, then by definition what we’re feeling toward them is probably anything but love, right? And sadly, enemies have been commonplace in every generation of human history. Jesus’ words don’t require translation here. We know what enemies are. One nation or tribal group or gang against another. One racial-ethnic or religious group against another. Sometimes even family members are out to hurt each other. And far too often in many countries, including our own, one ideology or one political party against another. In such a world, tremendous energy is spent battling one’s enemies, trying to defeat them, to humiliate them even … Loving them isn’t often a priority, is it?
But again “if you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you?” Certainly it’s easier to spend time with those who are kind to us, those we agree with, those who look or sound or dress or worship or vote most like we do, or those who have something to offer us. It’s far more comfortable to give to those who give to us. But Jesus’ question here is convicting: “what credit is that to you?” Even sinners love those who love them, and do good to those who do good to them. Jesus asks far more of us than that. In fact the Greek word used for “credit” here is charis, which we more often translate as “grace.” So perhaps behind Jesus’ question, “what credit is that?” we might also hear the question “how is that being gracious?”
Notice, we’re not asked to cultivate an abstract feeling, but to behave in loving ways, doing good and giving with no expectation of reward. Why? Because that’s precisely what it means to show grace – totally unmerited, undeserved goodness - and the God we worship is all about grace. “Be merciful,” Jesus says, “just as [God] is merciful.” (Luke 6:36) Give, without trying to get something in return. Love unselfishly. Show grace to those who show none to you. “Your reward will be great,” says Jesus, “and you will be children of the Most High.”
It’s far easier said than done. But here and there, now and then, we find powerful examples of individuals managing to demonstrate amazing grace, and to show love to their enemies. Corrie Ten Boom, a Dutch Christian who’d helped rescue an incredible number of Jews, with her family, during World War II, managed years later, with God’s help, to forgive a former guard at the Ravensbrück concentration camp where she had been imprisoned and severely mistreated, along with her sister, and where her sister had died. Rich Stearns, president of World Vision, tells of a woman named Margaret, caught in the violence of Northern Uganda’s war against the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA, who later forgave the former rebel who maimed and disfigured her. (The Hole in Our Gospel, pp. 142-143) We occasionally hear stories of abused children forgiving their abusive parents, or of enemies on opposite sides of a war showing tremendous kindness to one another. We shouldn’t expect this kind of forgiveness to be offered by those who’ve been deeply wounded. And certainly the perpetrators have no business requiring it. When it does happen, though, we can bet God is involved, because only God could give someone the grace to show love in the face of hate, or kindness in the face of cruelty. But here and there, now and then, it does happen.
Part of the genius of Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s was King’s recognition that love is actually far more powerful than hate. As he famously observed, “darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Other groups fighting for the rights of black Americans at the same time channeled the desire for vengeance, and frankly, that path might have been more understandable to those who’d long been denied any kind of justice. But King consistently preached the power of love and this radical teaching of Jesus, to love one’s enemies.
So historically, we’ve certainly seen Jesus’ teaching in action. But what does it look like for those of us who are not among the great heroes of history?
Well, on a personal note, some of you know that the way I generally plan out my sermons is to take a chunk of time in the summer and outline whole series at once. So this idea of “questions and answers with Jesus,” and even the particular questions, were on my radar screen several months ago. But isn’t it funny how God can still catch us off guard in spite of our best laid plans? I had no idea back in summer of 2016 the kinds of things that would be weighing on my mind and heart in the winter of 2017. I’m not proud of this, but in the last couple of months I’ve found myself harboring plenty of negative thoughts about politicians, for instance, that I disagree with passionately. And then here came our text for this week, and Jesus question, which clearly was directed right at me. “If you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you? … Love your enemies… be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
Surely there are all kinds of ways to apply these verses today, in our contemporary American context, and it’s always tempting to point to others we feel are missing the boat. But my takeaway this morning cannot be about where someone else is getting it wrong, but should be about God speaking to my own areas of weakness.
We have every right to disagree, as individuals and as groups, to believe what we believe and to speak our minds. But are we consistently speaking and acting in love?
Just as we cannot allow the terrorists to win, by living in fear, we cannot allow the haters to win, by living in hate. There is a better way, a more powerful way, a more Christ-like way.
Are you there yet? I only wish I were. I am convicted by Jesus’ question today because it’s a real struggle, sometimes, to maintain a spirit of grace and love, particularly toward those I feel are not being gracious and loving toward others. But what breakthroughs might be possible if we consistently spoke and acted – even in strong disagreement – from a place of love?
“Love your enemies” and “do good… expecting nothing in return.” Like so much of Jesus’ teaching, it couldn’t be simpler and at the same time, it couldn’t be harder.
But “if [we] love [only] those who love [us], what credit is that to [us]?” How is that showing the grace of God? Let all of us who have ears to hear, hear. Amen.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
As we continue our sermon series on “Questions and Answers with Jesus,” we notice again – as we did last week – that Jesus is fond of answering questions with questions. In fact, in the brief 11 verses we read this morning, we find a few different questions back and forth between Jesus and his conversation partners.
First, some of the Pharisees take issue with Jesus’ disciples plucking handfuls of grain as they walked through the grain fields. “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” they ask. Jesus answers them with a question: “Have you not heard what David did when he and his companions were hungry?” He went into the tabernacle and ate the special bread that is set apart there for the priests. As if to say - desperate times call for desperate measures. My guys were really hungry; God’s laws weren’t designed to prevent them from getting something to eat.
The story continues when Jesus enters the synagogue to teach, on another Sabbath, and sees a man with a withered right hand. Knowing he was being watched closely, knowing full well that some scribes and Pharisees were trying to find a way to trap him, Jesus calls the man to him and poses a question to his audience: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or destroy it?
Now as we consider a passage like this, we’ll want to remember at the outset that we live at a far remove from 1st century Judaism, in a culture in which we too often disregard the Sabbath commandment entirely. It seems anything and everything can take precedence over the Lord’s Day, Sunday, which for Christians is essentially our equivalent of Sabbath. So we’ll want to be careful not to disparage those who take the Sabbath commandment seriously. Frankly, we have a lot to learn from our Jewish neighbors about what it means, really, to set apart a full day for rest and worship. What it means, really, not to allow any other priorities to take precedence over obedience to God’s command to set apart the Sabbath day and keep it holy. We’d do well, as Christians, to adopt a posture of humility and a willingness to learn from those who faithfully keep biblical commandments like the Sabbath laws.
In our rush to excuse ourselves from things like the fourth of the Ten Commandments, Christians also sometimes argue that Jesus completely overturns Jewish laws, or makes them obsolete. So let’s be clear here about what Jesus was actually doing, when he healed people on the Sabbath. While in general Sabbath rules do prohibit any kind of work, the Sabbath commandment was given by God as an act of compassion, not judgment. In Deuteronomy, the commandment comes with a reminder that everyone in the household, including slaves, must be given a day of rest, “for you were once slaves in Egypt.” And acts of mercy are certainly not prohibited on the Sabbath, in Jewish law. In fact, if a human life is in danger, a Jew is not only allowed, but required, to violate any Sabbath law that stands in the way of saving that person. So let’s not fall into the trap of thinking Jesus was the first or only rabbi to perform acts of mercy on the Sabbath. Granted, Jesus extends the principle of lifesaving to non-life-threatening situations too, in some of his healing miracles. Healing this man’s withered hand in Luke 6 – while surely enhancing his life – did not actually rescue him from immanent death. That’s where the debate centers, on the question of urgency, not on whether or not it was allowable to ever show compassion on the Sabbath.
Admittedly, though, quite apart from the question of just how much merciful work is allowed on the Sabbath, is the far larger question of who gave the Sabbath commandment in the first place. We skipped over it in my retelling a moment ago, but if you look back at Luke 6 verse 5, Jesus said “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” Aye, there’s the rub. For if anyone had the right to re-interpret the precise implementation of Sabbath law, it would be the one who issued the commandment in the first place. And it should come as no surprise that Jesus would upset his devout Jewish audience by identifying himself with the commandment-giving God.
All that said, I think there are also lessons to be learned in stories like those we’ve read today, about Jesus’ general approach to the law. While taking seriously the importance of obedience to the commandments, he seemed also to apply another filter. Drawing his inspiration as much from the compassionate origin and intent of the commandments as from the letter of the law. Surely Sabbath laws were not designed to prevent hungry people from eating, for instance, or to prevent hurt people from becoming well.
So the question Jesus asks aloud here in Luke 6 is “Is it lawful?” And his listeners would have known there were certain exceptions to the Sabbath law, and they could have debated with Jesus at length about whether this man’s situation did or didn’t fall into the correct category for those exceptions.
But the question I hear behind Jesus’ question “Is it lawful” is “Is it merciful?” or “Is it kind?” Some of you may have heard the old proverb about asking ourselves a few questions each time we open our mouths to speak: “Is what I am about to say true? Is it necessary? Is it helpful? Is it kind?” I picture Jesus having a similar filter system for his actions. One in which “Is it lawful?” isn’t a bad start, but questions like “Is it compassionate? Is it merciful? Is it kind?” are even better.
I wonder if another dynamic at play here, too, is a sense of urgency on Jesus’ part. Last week we heard him remind people that, with his arrival on the scene, the Messiah himself had arrived! The time had come! The celebration must begin! I wonder if an awareness of how little time he had for his ministry comes into play in some of these healing miracles? As if to say, certainly under normal circumstances I could wait another day to heal this man’s hand. But we are not living in normal circumstances. This is about as far from ordinary time as you can get, folks. Remember - the bridegroom is here; the wedding feast is on. And unusual times call for unusual measures.
At any rate, there are a number of lessons we could take away from this morning’s text. For instance, we could hear in this earnest debate over Sabbath laws a simple reminder to consider our own Sabbath practice. Do we have one at all? Might our observance of the fourth commandment need a little work? Or we might choose to ponder the significance of Jesus’ self-identification as Lord of the Sabbath. His dual identity as God and man has already come up a few times in these question and answer sessions we’ve encountered in the gospel of Luke. It’s not a small deal, the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
No matter what else we take away, though, I imagine we would do well to hear in and under Jesus’ questions today an invitation to err on the side of grace. To err on the side of kindness and mercy. To err on the side of helping where we can.
In fact, it has struck me more than once this week that it’s interesting to be asking the question “Is it lawful?” at a time when our laws as a nation seem to be shifting wildly. So perhaps it’s just as important to hear the questions behind Jesus’ questions today. “Is it lawful” is a good start. “Is it just?” is another terribly important question to ask ourselves, and biblical teaching certainly has a great deal to say about the importance of justice. And finally, we should ask ourselves “Is it compassionate?” “Is it merciful?” “Is it kind?” The Lord of the Sabbath, feeder of hungry disciples on the Sabbath, healer of withered hands on the Sabbath, would want us to do no less. Amen.
Our hymn of response is a children’s hymn that seemed especially fitting today. Let’s stand and sing together.
Jesus’ hands were kind hands, doing good to all,
Healing pain and sickness, blessing children small,
Washing tired feet and saving those who fall;
Jesus’ hands were kind hands, doing good to all.
Take my hands, Lord Jesus, let them work for you;
Make them strong and gentle, kind in all I do;
Let me watch you, Jesus, till I’m gentle too,
Till my hands are kind hands, quick to work for you