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Nice Christianity

I am convinced that God works through us to bring about the kingdom God desires, but sometimes I wonder if God doesn’t get the feeling that the obstacle to getting there isn’t so much evil in the world as it is “nice Christianity.” Here’s what I mean by that: A few weeks ago I preached a sermon on the 13th Chapter of Corinthians. I mentioned that it has been sentimentalized to the point where one person said that it has been reduced to the profundity of a Barry Manilow song. Well, I’m back here to tell you that I think the same thing may have happened with verse 31 of today’s gospel from Luke: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Just as 1st Corinthians 13 has become known as the “luv” chapter, this verse has become known as “The Golden Rule” and is often thought to summarize, in one short sentence, the sum and substance of Jesus’ teaching.

It is “nice Christianity.” Grandma crocheted it on pillows. Sunday School kids memorize it. “Do unto others” brings to mind hazy images of bringing hot dishes to folks when they are sick or handing the person ahead of you in the grocery store checkout a dollar when they can’t find one in their purse. If you want others to be kind and nice to you, you should be kind and nice to them. (And we should. We should do all this.) But when the camera backs away from this one verse and the ones before and after that come into focus, we begin to see something different. Something much more difficult. Something even scary.

This “golden” verse comes as one part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain – Luke’s counterpart to The Sermon on the Mount. What Jesus laid out before his followers was not “nice Christianity.” It was a new and radical way of living and behaving in God’s kingdom rather than Caesar’s kingdom.

Now, I want you to imagine with me for a minute that the next few things I preach came only from me. Let’s pretend Jesus didn’t say them. Let’s pretend you came to church for your pastor’s advice. Let’s pretend for just a few seconds that I ascended the pulpit and said this to you: “Hey, if you get mugged today and someone knocks you up the right side of your head, show ‘em the left side so that they can smack you there, too. And if that same person steals your coat, take the shirt off your back and give it to them. Oh, and when you walk the “gauntlet” up there between the Indian restaurant and Jersey Mikes and you get panhandled. Give to every single person who wants money from you. If your house gets robbed, don’t call the police. Don’t try to get your stuff back. Give your no-good-brother in law the twenty-five hundred dollars he hit you up for. But don’t ask for it back.” I could go on paraphrasing what Jesus said to those who were listening to him. What pastor would actually give out advice like that?

You might even ask, why would Jesus give out advice like that? Who is actually going to follow those teachings? It just isn’t practical. It isn’t even helpful … to make impossible demands. Just makes you think that the things you hear Sunday morning bear no relation to making your way in the world today the rest of the week.

Part of the answer lies in another teaching of Jesus, the Lord’s Prayer, where he prayers, “…thy kingdom come…on earth as it is in heaven.” This would indicate that Jesus understood that God’s kingdom would not come to us from on high at the end of all the ages, but rather that God would use us to usher in, throughout the ages, God’s realm. And God’s realm is radically different than ours. Think about it. Why pray, “Thy will be done” if we aren’t the ones to be doing God’s will.

In Jesus’ day – and in our day – people lived pretty much the bizarro golden rule. The opposite golden rule. To the one who strikes you on the cheek, strike him or her on the check. To the one who asks or takes something from you, demand a similar item in return. In the bizarro golden rule, justice is retributive. Justice means retribution. Somebody does something to you, do it back to them. Do unto others as they have done unto you. Revenge is so good. We just love Godfather II!

Martin Luther King, Jr. was encouraged to fight back when they came at him and his peaceful marchers with water hoses, billy clubs, and attack dogs. They told him, “Only violence can fight violence.” But Dr. King knelt down with the others and prayed for those who were persecuting them.

Jesus doesn’t preach retributive justice, he teaches restorative justice. Where there is hate, restore love. Where there is violence, restore peace. Ah, this is the doctrine of non-violence, you might say. No. Non-violence is nice Christianity. Don’t fight or be aggressive. Play nice. This goes beyond that. Not only don’t you not hit back at your enemy, but you actually take responsibility for his or her wellbeing. Love your enemies. Bless those who curse you. He wants your coat? Give him your shirt, too. Restorative justice. This is God’s will. This is what God’s kingdom looks like. Bring it down, Jesus says. Bring it on!

“But Pastor, I can’t actually do all those things. I live in the real world.” Well, yes,and that’s the point of the whole thing. God invites us to live in her world. Her realm. Her kingdom. And the difference between the way God would have things and the way things are is “sin” … apartness from God. This “gap” between the real and the ideal is what we will be confessing each Sunday morning during the upcoming season of Lent when we say that we have sinned by what we have done and by what we have left undone.

Jerry Falwell Jr., President of Liberty University, said recently that Jesus’ teachings in The Sermon on the Mount only apply to how individual Christians treat other Christians. They don’t apply to how Christians treat Jews or Muslims or refugees at the border. Jesus’ teachings, Graham says, don’t have anything to do with how our nation treats other nations. They have nothing to do with diplomacy.

Well, even Fundamentalists like Jerry Fallwell Jr. believe that Jesus is the savior of the whole world. And if Jesus is savior of the whole world then his teachings apply to the whole world. But, Fallwell Christians view “salvation” as being nice Christians so that we can all go to heaven and live on clouds after we die. However, if we think of salvation as “ rescuing” it all looks different: Rescuing the world from violence. Rescuing the world from bigotry and hatred. Rescuing the world from disease and hunger and homelessness. These are not “nice” things. But these are the things Jesus came to save the world from.

Let’s talk about Matthew Shepherd’s mother for a minute in closing. Do you remember Matthew Shepherd? He was brutally beaten for being gay. One man felt that Matthew had made a pass at him, so he got a friend and, together, they beat Matthew over and over again. Then they tied him to a fence on a county road and left him alone in the freezing night. He was found the next morning and rushed him to the hospital where he died as hundreds stood in a candlelight vigil outside.

The two men who killed Matthew were arrested, tried, and found guilty of the hate crime. Being convicted of first degree murder in the state of Wyoming, they stood to receive the death penalty. But Matthew’s mother came before the judge. She asked the judge to spare the lives of these guilty men. Don’t you think she had replayed, in her mind, images of her beloved son tied to a fence, beaten and alone through the cold night? Don’t you think she asked herself what kind of an animal could have done this.

“Love your enemies,” Jesus said. It goes beyond non-violence. It goes to the kingdom God wants on earth as in heaven. It is not “nice Christianity.” But it is God’s will.

Text: Luke 6:27-38

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