Sermon from the Seventh Sunday After Epiphany

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, February 20, 2022
Genesis 45: 3-11, 15; Psalm 37: 1-11, 39- 40; 1 Corinthians 15: 35-38, 42-50; Saint Luke 6:27-3

In nomine Jesu!

For six weeks now, we’ve followed Luke’s story of Jesus: from his baptism by John in the Jordan, where he received the power of the Holy Spirit for his mission; to his first sermon in Nazareth, where he proclaimed the Spirit’s power to accomplish his strategic plan; to his execution of that plan as he called disciples, gave sight to the blind, set the oppressed free and, beginning last Sunday in his first public sermon, proclaimed good news to the poor

Today, Jesus continues that sermon and introduces a new term to publicly describe his mission goal: “The kingdom of God” on earth as in heaven. That was Jesus’ mission plan and goal then. That’s the goal of our mission planning now. For six Sundays we’ve heard Jesus’ plan; seen its execution; and discerned its purpose. Today, Jesus tells us his tactics and invites us to use his tactics so that, through us, the Holy Spirit create the “kingdom of God” on earth as in heaven.

There are two such tactics; the one everyone uses, and the one Jesus uses and prescribes.

First, to use our superior power – our wealth or physical strength, education, experience, social position, or connections – to make a qualitative difference in the lives of those in need. We all use this tactic all the time. When we discipline our children is a common example; or, as we do so well here, when we give of ourselves — our money, time, and expertise to help others. That exactly how we use our monthly mission offerings to do good, provide justice, help others because we have been blessed with more than they have of what they need to experience abundant life. This works! We see how this improves others’ lives.

When I served in New York, I learned another way to exert superior power for the sake of those in need. I became friends with the powerful. Two quick examples:

In one case, because I had become friends with the immensely powerful and wealthy owner of the company who bought the Citi Group Tower. He was a major financial contributor to the State of Israel. Every major Lutheran church body, agency, and bishop tried very publicly and failed just as publicly to stop the Israeli government from threatening the survival of Victoria Augusta hospital in Jerusalem by charging them for payroll taxes retroactive to 1967, (no hospital in Israel pays payroll taxes) because the hospital served everyone without partiality, including Palestinians who might be terrorists. Secretly and quietly, I went to my friend’s office to ask for help. He took out his cell phone; speed-dialed Israel’s prime minister and, knowing I was leaving in a few days for a planned interfaith peace mission to Israel, he gave me an envelope to hand- deliver it to the prime minister, which I did. Two weeks later, the threat went away. A successful use of the tactic of superior power.

One more. Because we had a Spanish congregation in our midst, in early 2017 Saint Peter’s Church joined the New Sanctuary Movement in order to protect our vulnerable immigrants from the newly aggressive tactics of ICE — Immigration and Customs Enforcement — agents. One of New Sanctuary’s leaders was an immigrant in the process of becoming documented. Nevertheless, he was detained by ICE and scheduled to be deported in a few days. No public pressure, no demonstration could help. But, because of our interfaith work after 9/11, I had a personal relationship with the governor, who could intervene, and the night before the man’s scheduled deportation, I had an opportunity to help. I was seated directly behind the governor at a synagogue service. Quietly, I passed all the man’s documentation to him and asked for help. The next day, he was released. Today he is still an activist leader, but as a US citizen.

Each of these power tactics made specific situations better; but none of them effected systemic change. That’s where Jesus’ “love your enemies” tactic comes in.

You may have been taught, as I was, that the goal of Jesus’ words today was to help us living peacefully with others. An absolutely nice goal. But not Jesus’ goal. Jesus’ goal was “to let the oppressed go free” and effect systemic change; not just by helping individuals, but by bringing “the kingdom of God” to earth as it is in heaven. That’s why Jesus directs his disciples, then and now, to use the tactics of love; of nonviolent subversion of overwhelming coercive power.

Think more deeply about Jesus’ words today? Who were the enemies Jesus speaks of? Who had power to strike or abuse indiscriminately? Who had the power to compel another to surrender a coat or carry a backpack? Who could requisition goods or occupy a home? The army of Rome and their wealthy collaborators. No one could stand up to them; all were powerless although some, like the sword-wielding zealots, tried. Jesus offered power to the powerless. Love your enemies. Go the extra mile. Negate coercive power by exceeding coercion’s commands. Of Course, this is costly. For Jesus, giving power to the powerless like this put him in direct conflict with the powerful and led him directly to death on the cross. But God raised Jesus and the risen Lord breathed the Holy Spirit’s power into disciples, then and now; and at our baptism God put every oppressor’s ability to coerce us by threatening to use the power of death behind us for good. At font and table, God nourishes us with the Spirit; feeds us with the power of the risen Christ; and establishes the kingdom of God in us so that we can welcome others to live in that kingdom on earth as it is in heaven too.

The Holy Spirit gave Jesus a mission plan. By the power of the Spirit, Jesus executed that plan through the cross and out of that borrowed tomb. The Spirit is about to give us a mission plan too, a new plan because times and situations have changed. A new plan, but with the same tactics, love for all. A new plan, but with the same goal: the kingdom of God on earth and in heaven. God’s work. Our hands. The Spirit’s power. Christ’s love. Amen.