Epiphany 8A Sermon (2011)

8th Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: Matthew 6:24-34;
1 Cor. 4:1-5


“Love your enemies.” Some of you are thinking that was last week’s Gospel. But there is something I didn’t mention last Sunday that I want to begin with today — the uniqueness of that message. “Love your enemies.” That message cannot be found in any of the world’s major religions until Jesus came along. Since then, some have picked it up. But as far as those who study the history of religion can tell, Jesus was not only the first to teach it, but he was also the first to live it in such a dramatic way – going so far as to die on the cross even for his enemies.

This morning’s Gospel, “Don’t be anxious,” is not unique. Many of the great religions also ring out this same theme. Some, like Buddhism, are even centered on it. Buddhism not only teaches you not to be anxious, but it also provides many tools of meditation and spirituality about how not to be anxious. Christians through the ages have been wise to pick up some of those practices from our friends who follow the Buddha.

Here’s my main point this morning: These two Gospel messages — “Love our enemies” and “Don’t be anxious” — are intimately connected. The Gospel of Jesus is unique because “Love your enemies” is unique, but now put that together with “Don’t be anxious.” Jesus is teaching us that we will not be anxious when we learn to love our enemies.

Let’s look at Buddhism for a moment. One of its core messages is to not be anxious, but it tells us that human desire itself is the enemy. Buddhism understands human desire to be fatally flawed, so one of its main objectives is to purge oneself of all ordinary human desire. One succeeds in not being anxious by purging all desire, thus finding more complete well-being on the way to Nirvana.

The Jewish-Christian message also understands there is a grave problem with human desire – just look at the Commandments: we desire our neighbor’s spouse, our neighbor’s belongings, their lands and their resources. The Bible’s word is “covet.” This gets us into all kinds of trouble – because we are willing to steal and sometimes even kill for our neighbor’s stuff. Beginning with the serpent in the garden convincing the first woman that the forbidden fruit was desirable, and the woman then convincing her husband – the rest, as they say, is history. Catching desires from each other has led us down the path of broken relationships and conflict from which we’ve never been able to extract ourselves.

It’s easy to see, then, why Buddhism identifies human desire itself as sinful, thus needing to purge all desire in order to find peace. But this is where the Jewish-Christian faith still suggests a difference that we might consider. Perhaps it’s not desire itself that is sinful, but the way we sometimes desire that is the problem. What if instead of catching our desires from each other there was a desire completely devoid of envy and rivalry; and a way to catch our desire so that we wouldn’t fall into conflict? Does this exist? Yes – God’s love. The desire of our God who created us all in love does not fall into rivalry because it is the fatherly/motherly love for the wellbeing of every single creature. It is a love that knows no enemies, for it is a perfect love like a parent should have: completely unconditional; no strings attached. Only mercy and a yearning for each of us to finally experience complete well-being.

We might ask: How can we ever hope to catch God‘s desire? The Christian Gospel has an answer for that, too. When God’s desire of perfect love took on human flesh, we found the person that we need to help us love even our enemies. The love of the Creator of all has no enemies, only beloved children. That person, my friends, is of course Jesus Christ. Jesus loves with the perfect love of his heavenly Father so that we, too, might catch our love from him and begin to love in that perfect way. Remember the seemingly impossible ending to last week’s Gospel? “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” We are called to the grace of loving others as God loves them.

Brothers and sisters, that’s the Good News! We can begin to live the light of God’s perfect love because Jesus Christ lived that perfect love, and you and I have been promised in our baptisms that we can love like God through the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit of perfect love is always with us so that we might open ourselves to it and live each day in that love. When we do that, then it is no longer we who live but Christ living in us, as St. Paul said. This is how heaven comes to earth. It already came to earth in Jesus, whose Spirit of God’s love has now been unleashed in this world so that you and I may also begin to live in that kind of love. Isn’t that incredible?!

Now, there is also the Bad News of how much of humanity remains trapped in a way of desiring which leads to rivalry, and so also leads to anxiety. Do you see the connection to being anxious? Being trapped in rivalries means we are competing against someone for what appears as scarce resources. And so we become anxious, afraid that our opponent will get the goods instead of us.

Brothers and sisters, our whole modern lifestyle as ramped-up consumers is nothing but one humongous competition. The ‘American Dream’ is based on personal achievement over against the other guy. Some will achieve and some won’t. We are constantly anxious and afraid that the other guy, our opponent — whoever that may be at any given moment — will achieve more than us. Anxiety is at epidemic proportions in our society; so much so that we might not even be anxious about specific things, like having enough food or clothes. But rather we live in such a climate of anxiety that we now suffer from something called generalized anxiety. We are anxious about absolutely everything at the same time. Our pharmaceutical companies newest booming industry is medicine for generalized anxiety disorder. Now, please here me: I’m not saying we shouldn’t take these medicines. I believe that our hyper-anxious lifestyle is changing us, changing our bodies. Some people feel it as an anxiety disorder. Others feel it in various other parts of their bodies. Even something like cancer, that ultimate nameless invader of our bodies, can become more prominent because we are anxious about those nameless opponents out there who might get our stuff. Yes, we need many of our new medicines. But I’m also saying that there is a more ultimate medicine which can provide a true cure of our anxiety.

First, we need to take a moment to also recognize the most age-old ‘medicine.’ The standard treatment through the ages to reduce anxiety about our opponents is for the majority to agree on who the enemy is. Did you know that the Greek word for ‘scapegoat’ is pharmakos, from which we get our word pharmaceutical, “medicine”? In an anxious Germany of the 1930’s, for example, Hitler found a scapegoat to help reduce their anxiety. The majority of Germans could know a relative peace by banding together to hate Jews. Our being over against someone else is both the cause for our anxiety and our solution. The way we desire by catching desire from each other produces opponents, which produces anxiety over losing. But we also lessen our anxiety by banding together with others in our group against that opponent. It’s like medicine. A little does of being against those folks over there can help me feel less anxious with the folks I most hang with. We can have less anxiety with our friends by finding a common opponent to hate. Hasn’t that worked for centuries?

But our world can no longer bear this kind of solution, this kind of medicine, that depends on having an enemy. Look at our own nation. We are split down the middle. Our politics have become all about an over against-ness. Republicans and Democrats completely define themselves by being against one another. We’ll never get anywhere that way. And even when our two political parties can agree on an enemy — al-Qaida, perhaps, or maybe the latest immigrants will bring us together one more time — even so, that brings only temporary relief. In a world where we now have weapons of mass destruction — another good reason to be anxious! — there is only one ultimate solution: catch the love of Jesus Christ, which loves even enemies. The only true medicine for our anxiety, for our anxious world, is to catch the love of Jesus that reaches out even to opponents. When we are no longer over-against someone else, there will no longer be a reason for us to be anxious.

And having such love is not impossible for this world. Or perhaps that’s why the version of Christian faith focused on going to heaven has become so commonplace in the church. Perhaps it’s because we’ve concluded that God’s love is impossible for us and our world. We’ve given up on this world and so hope for the next world to come. Or have lost all hope. Anxiety can be a crippling problem when one loses hope.

But this has been the whole point for our Epiphany theme of ‘Heaven on Earth.’ We have been entertaining the notion that there is a more faithful way to read Scripture which sees the point of the Gospel as being that God sent Jesus precisely to save this world. This world is the only Creation which God has lovingly made and desires to save. And so God did something about it. God sent Jesus into the world with the divine power of love, which is now available to everyone who in faith opens themselves to the Spirit and thus catches their love from Jesus. And, in sending Jesus and the Holy Spirit, we have the assurance that God has not given up on this world.

The question is: Have we?

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, February 27, 2011

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