Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
A few years ago when I was standing in front of the bride and groom performing a wedding, a small, yellow “post-it” note fell out of my Bible. Apparently, the sticky side had worn off and it floated down in front of the wedding couple. The groom immediately picked up the note, read it, and smiled. The message was short. It simply said in capital letters, KISS. He then handed it to me, and I whispered to him, “It’s from my wife.” During a solo later in the service, the groom whispered to me, “Your wife must love you to leave a KISS for you in your Bible.” I looked at him and under my breath responded, “That’s her way of reminding me, ‘Keep it short and simple.’” Of course there are variations on that acronym, KISS, including the words Stupid and Silly, but my wife would never use any of them on me –in church
Today, there is a longing for a “simple way of life” distilling the Christian faith down to a few rules and principles. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which we have been meditating on over the last few weeks, offers these few short and simple principles for a productive and fruitful life. The sermon after all contains a summary of the Ten Commandments, and how to pray to God in the words of the Lord’s Prayer. There is even the Golden Rule. “In everything do to others, as you would have them do to you.” In contrast, the religious leaders of ancient Israel had compiled not simply 10 commandments, but 613 divine commandments from the first five books of the Bible known as the Pentateuch. 248 of these commandments were prescriptive of things that God told them to do. 365 of these commandments were prohibitive of things that God forbade them to do. Yes, 613 laws in total. It is any wonder that the crowds were longing for a way to keep it short and simple?
Unfortunately, there are also portions of Jesus’ wisdom and teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that make us uneasy. And no verse causes more consternation than the command, “Love your enemies.” The challenge, you see, isn’t our understanding of the commandment, but rather it is our understanding of the word love. We use the word of love in a variety of ways. We love chocolate because of it satisfying taste. We love a movie because it entertains or moves us. We love a boy or girlfriend because they make us happy. We love a spouse because they complete us. These are all meaningful responses of the heart. But in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, love isn’t simply an inner emotion of affection or attraction. Love isn’t passive or happenstance. Love is an action. It is a behavior and a commitment to seek the good of another no matter what.
This morning, I would like to explore this challenging passage at the center of the Sermon on Mount. Love, you see, is not a quality or character of the Christians faith which is optional. Rather, we are called to be perfect in our love for our neighbors and our enemies, just as our Heavenly Father is perfect. So where do we begin?
First of all, Jesus teaches us in the Sermon on the Mount that we are to love God with all our heart and soul and mind. And specifically for Christians, are to love Jesus Christ. Jesus says to his followers, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” There is no other way around it. This means that we are to wake up with a prayer on our lips, “Not my will, but thy will be done.” And if we love God, we will naturally begin to love those around us and take care of their needs. An American journalist was assigned the task of reporting on Roman Catholic hospitals in China. One day as he was touring one of these hospitals, he came across a nun who was cleaning the gangrenous sores of a soldier. The reporter looked at her and said, “I would not do that for a million dollars.” The nun continued her work and said, “Neither would I, but for Christ, I would.” When we love God in Christ, then we are able to carry out work that we could never have imagined doing before. God’s love flows through us so that we can love, more and more, all those we encounter.
Now of course we are to love those in our work, those with whom we attend church, those we encounter at the supermarket. But I also want to suggest that there is an inner circle of this love and that is those relationships given to us in our children, our spouses, our friends, our parents, our siblings who are our primary responsibility. Jesus loved everyone he met, but he also had an inner circle of disciples for whom he was particularly responsible. Some years ago, a well-known leader of youth movements throughout the country died. He was heralded for all he had done to benefit the teens of our nation. Sometime later, a teen was found desecrating his grave. He was arrested and brought in and found to be the son of the youth leader. In shock, the arresting officers asked him why he would do such a thing? The response was startling, “All those things he talked about; he did for everyone, for everyone but me.” It is possible to be a loving person to those on the surface of our lives, but we are also called to love, even more deeply, those with whom we have intimate relationships.
And we are also called to love ourselves. This is not “selfishness,” as one might think. George Gallup once said, “A selfish person is one who is ‘me-deep’ in conversation,” but loving yourself is about becoming the person God has created you to be. A selfish person is always looking out for his or her best interest. The world revolves around them and their concerns, joys, hurts, successes and failures. And yet, Jesus says you are to “love your neighbor as yourself.” That means you are to give yourself to those things, activities and relationships, that will better enable you to be the man or woman, the loving person, God has called you to be. There were times when Jesus himself had to pull away and be alone. At times, he calls us away to pray, rest, worship…study as well. But he also sends us back to neighbors, friends and enemies to let us these speak God’s love to them through our actions and words. Finally, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches us to love our enemies.
We live in a polarized world and society, and Jesus’ commandment is just as compelling now as it was 2000 years ago. Jesus challenges us to love our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us. Yes, he challenges us to love and listen to those with whom we are politically, economically, and socially opposed. Interestingly, he challenges you and me to do these things- not for the sake of others, but for ourselves, so that we may be the children of our Father in heaven. It’s always easier to love the person who already loves us or to talk with the person we already know who likes the same things we do. But Jesus doesn’t call us to the easy life – Jesus calls us to discipleship, and that means not just mingling with, but embracing others. That means noticing the awkward person in the corner and inviting him or her into our conversations. That means praying for those who wish us ill and respecting the dignity of every human being. It means not simply loving and praying for your enemy in theory, but loving your enemy in practice.
Jesus said, the world teaches us, “You shall love your neighbor and hate and your enemy, but I say to you love your enemies.” If you and I only greet those with whom we agree, how are we different than the rest of the world? Are you then just the same as those you oppose? You and I are called to be perfect, as our Father is perfect who makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. God’s love is perfect and whole, pure–and relentless in its pursuit of each one of us. When we know God loves us like that, we can begin to do the same for our neighbors and our enemies. To love God and to love Jesus his son, is to love God’s children and to seek the best for them. That is what we are commanded to do- short and simple.
There was a man who went to the clinic and told his doctor that he wasn’t able to do all the things around the house that he used to do. When the examination was complete, he said, “Now, Doc, I can take it. Tell me in plain English what is wrong with me.” “Well, in plain English,” the doctor replied, “you’re just lazy.” “Okay,” said the man. “Now give me the medical term so I can tell my wife.” We all have our excuses why we may avoid fulfilling the law. It may be lack of will, of passion, of energy or interest. Or maybe, your failing is simply laziness.
Granted, we cannot obey the law fully. We will never perfectly love our neighbor or God as we should. Indeed, we will fall short again and again. But we dare to be perfect, because we believe it is Jesus’ wisdom and grace that we bring us new life.
The late South African President Nelson Mandela who lived in prison for 27 years wrote, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” When Jesus commanded us to pray for our enemies and to love them, he commanded a difficult thing. Nelson Mandela knew a lot about enemies, yet he also knew that resentment only poisons only the one who harbors the feeling. Forgiveness and understanding, frees us to experience God’s love and wonder. Forgiveness, compassion and understanding may not come immediately, but if we choose only to love our neighbors and hate our enemies, we will forever be killing ourselves with resentment. Jesus’ commandment offers another way.
My friends, let me keep it short and simple. God loves you enough to offer his life giving commandment that you care for one another; your neighbors and your enemies, and he loves you enough to forgive and renew you each time that you fail; he loves you enough to send you back into the world to try once, again, to live the commandment of love. And he loves you enough, to give you the body, blood, and resurrected life, and spirt of his only son Jesus Christ to give you strength for a second chance.
That is the gospel. Be prefect and live as God’ children in this world. Keep it Short and Simple. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.