STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH AUGUST 23, 2020

Rev. Sabrina Ingram

WORSHIPPING AT HOME TOGETHER

 

Call to Worship:  Psalm 43: 2 – 4

I counted on you, God.
Why did you walk out on me?
Why am I pacing the floor, wringing my hands
over these oppressive foes ?

Give me your lantern and compass,
give me a map,
So I can find my way to the sacred mountain,
to the place of your presence,
To enter the place of worship,
meet my exuberant God,
Sing my thanks with a harp,
magnificent God, my God.

 

Prayer of Adoration and Confession

God of Love, you fill us with awe.  Your steadfast love is higher than the heavens, and your faithfulness reaches to the clouds.  You are not a father who favours one child over the next, your love is universal, extending to every corner of creation and to every person for all time.  You have come in Jesus Christ to share our human experience.  Your empathy for us is complete and compassionate.  You showed your self-less loving kindness in dying for us.  You showed your unstoppable benevolence by rising from the grave and conquering sin.   It is only because we know your goodwill towards us is invincible, do we dare to approach you and seek your forgiveness. 

 

As much as we can count on you to love us, you can be sure that we will fall short of your perfection.  We confess that we find it hard to love those who have harmed us.   We find it hard to love those who have offended us.   We can even find it hard to love some people simply because of the colour of their skin or their position in society or their religion.   We deem them our enemies.  We hold many grudges.  We have bitter feelings.  Sometimes, we’re determined not to let our anger go and we end up punishing ourselves with poisonous feelings.  Forgive us. 

 

As we join our hearts with our Christian family throughout the city, may you be exalted.  Soar high in the heavens, Lord.  Cover the whole world, the world that you love, with your glory.  May our hearts rise to meet you.  Amen.

 

Assurance of Pardon:   Proverbs 25: 21

If you see your enemy hungry, go buy him lunch;

if he’s thirsty, bring him a drink.

Your generosity will surprise him with goodness,

and God will repay you.

 

Prayer for Illumination:

God of Mercy, you call us to love others as you have loved us.  As we hear your word, give us the determination to overcome evil with good.  Amen.

 

Scripture Readings

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?  Do not even the Gentiles do the same?   Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. ”.   Matthew 5: 43 – 48   NRSV

 

“You’re familiar with the written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’  I’m challenging that.  I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst.  When someone gives you a hard-time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves.  This is what God does.  He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty.  If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus?  Anybody can do that.  If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal?  Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.  In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up.  You’re kingdom subjects.  Now live like it.  Live out your God-created identity.  Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”   The Message

 

Romans 5: 6 – 11

Luke 10: 25 – 37

 

Message:

This week we witnessed the “Abraham Accord”, a peace treaty between United Arab Emirates and Israel.  While it’s a step forward for those two countries, it’s to be seen whether or not it will encourage peace in the Middle East.  As with everything in the M.E., this historical moment is complicated.  The Palestinians feel negated and angered by not being invited to the table, and they feel “betrayed” by the UAE.  They point out that such negotiations could be used as a bargaining chip for a two-state solution.   Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s response was stronger, “The UAE has turned itself into a legitimate target for the resistance” and the accord will “accelerate the process of the destruction of the child-killing Zionist regime”.  Israel is the sworn enemy of many countries which won’t rest until it is “wiped off the map”.  

 

This tense political situation raises a personal question:  “How do you respond to your enemies?”  How are we, as Christians, to respond to those who hurt or harm us, or to those who betray, negate or despise us?   It’s natural to hate our enemies.  Last week we learned that Christ’s disciples are to resist retaliation.  This week we read an even more challenging teaching.  Jesus directs us to “love our enemies.”  Not retaliating is a passive response to “our enemies”.  According to Jesus, that isn’t enough.   He wants us to do “more”.   He wants our response to be active.  As Augustine put it, “Many people have learned to turn the other cheek, but few have learned to love the one by whom they were struck.”  Jesus points out that all people are capable of love on some level.  Greedy Tax Collectors who get rich exploiting their own countrymen, love those who love them.  The Gentiles, who were considered “unclean”, sinful, people beyond God’s acceptance, show love by greeting their friends and neighbours in the street.  We might hear Jesus saying, “So you love your family and friends, and people like you?  Big deal.  Anybody can do that!”   The question this begs is, “Why isn’t loving those who love me, enough?”  That hard enough.   I’m only human.  I hang on to old wounds.  I’m withdrawn if someone disappoints me.  I get impatient when someone’s habits grate on my nerves.  There are times when I deserve a medal for loving those who love me.  It’s not normal to love your enemies.  What’s that about?”     

 

Jesus says it’s because we’re children of God, and children imitate their Father.  When my son was 6, we got invited to a wedding.  I asked him what he’d like to wear, and he said, “I want to dress however Daddy dresses.  The very same.”  His Dad was going to wear a camel hair jacket, so I went down to the “recycled” clothing stores and searched high and low until I found a camel hair jacket.  (It was a woman’s jacket, but we didn’t tell him that).  My son was thrilled to be like his Daddy.   Children of God imitate their Daddy too.  It’s a hard act to follow.   “God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”  “God gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty.”  In other words, God is not partial to anyone; he treats everyone the same.  God doesn’t bless “the good” and deprive “the bad”.  This would have been perplexing to Jesus’ Jewish audience.  Unlike all others, they were God’s “chosen people”.  God would naturally bless his “chosen people” over and above the rest.  Those Jews who didn’t believe in an afterlife, maintained that those who pleased God were rewarded in this life.  (Similarly, many Protestant Christians in the West have pointed to our wealth as a sign that God loves us best.  So, rather than sharing God’s blessings, we’ve indulged ourselves.)   The Jews believed that as the “Covenant people”, they had an obligation to love and care for their own.    Their duty to those on the outside (the Gentiles from other nations who served other “gods”) was minimal.   The Law, unless it specified otherwise (as in Leviticus 19:17 & 18, Exodus 23:4 & 5)  applied to their fellow Israelites.  And the Law didn’t expect them to  feel kindly towards their enemy, only to be decent people in the most basic of ways.   On the other hand, it was fine for them to hate  and even go to war against the people they believed were enemies of God.  The Canaanites, and other tribes, didn’t worship Yahweh and some of their practices were abominable, such as child sacrifice.  In opposing them, Israel believed they were defending God.   Sometimes Christians fall into the same trap.  We can view people outside the Church as “less” in the eyes of God or as enemies of God, and feel justified in ignoring their needs, judging them, and even harming or killing them.   Jesus pulls the plug on all of that, asserting  God loves and care for his entire creation.

 

Calvin expands this.  He affirms God loves all his creation indiscriminately.  God extends “common grace” (as opposed to “saving grace”) to all creation,  giving them life and providing for their needs.   God’s love is offered to all people equally.  This kind of love is known by the Greek word “agape”.  Unlike romantic love (eros) which we fall into, or brotherly love (philia) which we grow into or family love (storge) which we are birthed into, (the Greeks have at least 4 other words for love), agape –  empathetic, universal, self-less love – is something we will to do.  We chose to extend “loving-kindness”, “invincible goodwill”, “unstoppable benevolence” towards everyone.  (Often the word agape has been translated as “unconditional love” which is a confusing term.  God’s love is “unconditional” in that it’s offered to all sinful people equally, but it is not unconditional in the sense of accepting, acquiescing or approving all behaviour.  If God loved us “unconditionally” as in the second way, Jesus would not have had to die for our sin.)   God wills to love all people before we’re worthy of his love.  As Paul notes, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).  There is nothing, that God will allow to stand as a barrier between his love and his creation.

 

Whomever said “Christianity is a crutch for the weak” didn’t know what they were talking about.  They’ve obviously never read the Sermon on the Mount!   As Christians we are called to “Grow up” – to rise above all the petty insults to our egos, our need for attention, our psychological games, our self-pity, the wounds our enemies inflict, etc.  We’re called to be like God: “Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”  In fact, we are to be so much like God that we are to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Clearly, none of us are capable of reaching God’s holiness, wholeness, power or worthiness.   Only through Christ and in Christ’s kingdom will we be made holy.  The word here for “perfect” is the Greek word “teleios”.   It’s the word used to describe an animal acceptable for sacrifice – one “without spot or blemish”.  It’s also used to describe maturity as in the difference between an adult and a child.  And it’s used to describe the accomplishment of the master compared to the student.  We are “teleios” – perfect –  when we fulfill our purpose.  People are made to love and worship God and to love one another.  The “perfect” person is the one who is unwavering, forgiving, sacrificial and benevolent in their love to all.

 

We all know someone who has hurt us deeply, someone whom we don’t trust and can’t forgive – someone we’d label “an enemy”.  Sometimes, we’re enemies with someone because we’ve hurt them and are too proud to confess and make amends.  Sometimes we create enemies of those who are a different race, rank, religion or orientation.  The hatred is ours and we project it onto them.  We do this as individuals, societies, and systems, so it can be difficult to identify this tendency within ourselves.  And sometimes, we attract enemies because of our faith.  In 1880, the theologian A.F.C. Villmar warned, “Christians will be hounded from place to place, subjected to physical assault, maltreatment, death by every means.  We are approaching an age of wide-spread persecution.”  We know this is true for many Christians around the world and sometimes it’s true for us.  Recently, a teacher was  telling me some of  her classroom experiences  – such as children trashing rooms or threatening her with knives or lawsuits.   She felt that, regardless of these challenges, teachers are unsupported and hated.  After listening, I said, “I can imagine – try being a Christian minister.”  How do we love our enemies?   Before we go on, if a person is abusing you, you have the responsibility to remove yourself from that person’s control.  Loving your enemy doesn’t mean putting up with mistreatment, devoting yourself to changing them or giving them endless opportunities to harm you.  If at all possible, get out of harm’s way.  Then you are safe and free to do the following:

 

Jesus suggests we love our enemies by praying for them.  Not just so they’ll change, but so that we’ll change.  It’s hard to hate someone for whom you’re praying.  When we pray for someone, we acknowledge God’s love for them, which leads us to seeing them as people with whom we share a common humanity.  When we pray, we seek the highest good for the person.  When we pray, we begin to see them with God’s compassion.

 

Paul instructs us in Romans 12: 14 that we are to “bless and not curse them”.  As we noted last week, words are powerful.  When we bless another person, we wish the best for them.  We ask God to intervene in their lives for good.  We maintain hope that God is able to change them or us and can heal the rift.

 

We are to serve them, just as God serves us with sunshine and rain.  This lifts us above our feelings into concrete action.  Service moves us past sentiment and emotion into showing them Christ’s love through our deeds.  Service creates humility, and humility invites us to look at ourselves.  We may discover the fault is not with the other person, but within ourselves.

 

We forgive.  Remember the mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Charleston, NC in 2015?   A white supremist attended a Bible Study in which he pulled out a gun and murdered 9 people.  I was amazed at how quickly a representative from that congregation was able to express forgiveness towards the 21-year-old killer.  Some people forgive easily, letting go of things quickly.  For others, like myself, forgiveness is a process.  It progresses like a spiral – there’s a level of forgiveness at one place, and then I come around to visit it many times before I’m free of the hurt and anger.  I usually begin this process by confessing that I am unable or unwilling to forgive, and asking Christ to forgive them for me (he is much better at forgiveness than I am).  Just asking for mercy for the person is a step to opening myself to forgiving them.  And if I need to do that 70 x 7 times, I just keep going around the spiral until I have.

 

Is loving an enemy possible?  The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer died in a concentration camp, arrested for attempting to assassinate Hitler.     By no means did he condone the actions of the Nazi’s.  While in prison, suffering the abuse of the guards, he made a point of greeting them cheerily each morning and giving them the respect due to any human being.  It is possible, and it is an act of the will.  The scholar Alfred Plummer affirms this teaching of Jesus in simple words, “to return evil for good is devilish; to return good for good is human; to return good for evil is divine.”  Let us “do more” so that our enemies know we are Christians by our love.

 

Questions for Reflection:

Do you have a general, encompassing love for all people?  Who is not welcome under that umbrella of tenderness?

What is the longest time you’ve carried a grudge?  Do you carry one now?

Is there someone (or some group) you have deemed an enemy due to their race, rank, religion or orientation?  If so, how might you learn to love them?

In what ways do you choose to imitate your heavenly Father?

Are you able to pray for, bless, serve, and forgive an enemy?  Which of these is hardest?

To whom have you acted in such a way as to become their enemy?

What is God calling you to do?

 

Offering:  Heavenly Father, you have made us your children.  Help us to imitate you.  We offer ourselves to your service as your loyal subjects.  Equip us with love so we’ll be able to meet evil with good.  Accept us and all our gifts so your kingdom may come on Earth as in Heaven.  Amen. 

 

Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession

Life-giving God, we thank you that you provide for all our needs and for the needs of others, making the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sending rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.   We thank you for your common grace that is a sign of love to all.  May the abundance we share in our country touch every life and community in this land.

 

We thank you for your forgiveness of us, sending Christ to die for us even though we were your enemies.   We pray that you would give us loving and forgiving hearts.

 

You equip your people with gifts to work for your kingdom, bringing your Word of life for the salvation of all people and bringing justice and peace to every land and community.  We thank you for the treaty which has been entered into by the United Arab Emirates and Israel.  Use this moment to increase peace in the Middle East.  Help people to turn from hating their enemies to true and just resolution.

 

Through your Spirit, O God, you give the gift of prophecy.  Help us to use this gift to speak words of truth into situations where people are hurt.  Guide our actions so that we might influence change for good in the world and bring hope to the hopeless.

 

You give the gift of serving, O God, in the example of your Son, Jesus.   Help us to use this gift to serve those who have been ill-treated and those who have mistreated others.  Increase our awareness and our dedication to work for reconciliation and harmony.

 

God of wisdom, you give the gift of teaching. .  Help us to use this gift to grow in our faith and understanding, that we may serve you better.   Help us to use this gift to ensure that every child has access to education and opportunity.  Be with every teacher and every student in the coming months as schools adapt to the challenges of COVID-19.  Support creative teaching and diligent learning in every school and centre for learning

 

God of hope, you give the gift of encouragement.  Help us to use this gift to hearten all who are struggling in these difficult days.   Bless us with words and actions to bring comfort to all who morn, to those coping with mental or physical illness, and to any who feel isolated or left behind.  Lay your healing hand upon all who ask, and those who don’t. 

 

God of purpose and promise, you give the gift of leadership.  Help us to use this skill to build up our congregations.  In these times, when we cannot meet together, help us to find ways to encourage and enjoy one another.  May we lead our communities in modelling respectful ways of living and loving.  Show us how our churches can be places of support within our neighbourhoods.

 

God of love, you give the gift of kindness.  Help us to love all who cross our paths, even those who anger or upset us.  Teach us to be forgiving and reconciling in all our relationships.

 

We ask these things in the name of Jesus Christ who taught us to pray…

 

 

The Lord’s Prayer

 

 

Invitation to Mission:

As we go into the world, we go as peacemakers bringing Christ’s love to everyone we meet, not because of who they are or how they treat us, but because we are children of our Heavenly Father.  Amen. 

 

May the Triune God bless you and keep you.

Amen.