“Do to others as you would have them do to you.” This teaching of Jesus, often called The Golden Rule, is one of the most well-known and universally applicable phrases in the Gospel. Found in what is called the Sermon on the Plain in the Gospel according to Luke, the sermon is focused on how we treat one another. Throughout this series, we will study teachings from Jesus’ famous sermon as we take an honest look at ourselves and our community. How do we treat one another? How do we create obstacles to becoming the Beloved Community we long for? Where are we called to do and to be better? Join us for this important study and reflection on becoming beloved.
Blessing and Challenge
Text: Luke 6:20-36
“Do to others as you would have them do to you.” At the heart of these familiar words, commonly known as “the golden rule,” is what Howard Thurman called the “love ethic.” Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about this in terms of agape love, which he described as “‘understanding, creative, redemptive good will toward all [people].’ Agape is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return…it is the love of God operating in the human heart.”
Agape love, the love of God operating in the human heart, is the core of King’s vision of Beloved Community. And on this day we begin a new series—“Becoming Beloved”—centered on the teachings of Jesus found in what is called the Sermon on the Plain. These teachings challenge us to grapple with what it really means to love God and love our neighbor. How do we treat other people? What is needed here at Foundry for us to truly become “beloved community”? I hope you will take this journey with us over the next several weeks.
The sermon on the plain begins with a central theme in Luke—that of reversals: the lowly will be lifted, those who are filled will be hungry, those who are laughing will weep… I’ve often heard these reversals explained as something God makes happen. If you think about it that way, it’s easy to fall into a punishment and reward kind of polarity: if you’re this, you get that; if you’re that, you get this. But I’d like us to consider an alternative way of thinking about it.
In all human life, there are moments when we are up and moments when we are down, moments when you might be rich in things and weeping in spirit, moments you are living in poverty and laughing with loved ones regularly. If you think of the “blessings and woes” as two columns on a page, there are times when you might find yourself in both columns. In other words, life is generally a mix of things. The scale will tilt more or less in one direction for many folks due mostly to human choices that create and sustain unjust systems. But it is still the case that most human lives are a mixture of blessing and challenge—and often all at the same time. What if we thought of these “blessings and woes” in our text not as reward and punishment, but rather as words of encouragement and words of caution?—encouragement that the current suffering will not last forever and caution not to take any current blessing for granted.
Following the opening blessings and woes, Jesus turns to how we treat those who hate or harm us. It seems Jesus is determined to focus on the most difficult thing to make sure we don’t miss that our call as followers of Jesus is nothing less than to love as God loves (Agape). And, Lord knows, God loves us when we are at our absolute worst. God knows what we have done or left undone that has meant harm for others and for ourselves. God knows it all and loves us still. So we are taught, “be merciful as your Father is merciful.” “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”
This doesn’t mean you like people who are cruel or abusive. MLK said, “When you rise to love on this level, you love all [people] not because you like them, not because their ways appeal to you, but you love them because God loves them.” “King said that ‘Agape…makes no distinction between a friend and enemy; it is directed toward both…Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community.”
Biblical scholar Walter Wink reminds us that, “Jesus is not encouraging submission to evil…He is, rather, warning against responding to evil in kind by letting the oppressor set the terms of our opposition. Perhaps most importantly, he cautions us against being made over into the very evil we oppose by adopting its methods and spirit. He is saying, in effect . . . do not become the very thing you hate.”
I’ve recently become aware of the fact that I’ve been fostering negative feelings toward some folks in my life who’ve personally hurt me. I have not been loving or blessing them. In fact, I’m ashamed by my failure to pray for them and about what happened, to be merciful, to try to repair or “preserve community” as MLK said. What I realize is that nurturing these grievances is poison to my spirit and my heart.
And I believe that Jesus is deeply concerned with the state of our hearts. And so he begins his sermon on the plain offering suffering hearts encouragement and self-satisfied hearts a shaking and waking up. Whatever mixed up state our hearts are in, there are choices for us to make that will affect everything in our lives, including what we “do unto others.”
When we suffer, do we put up such defenses around our heart that almost everyone is perceived as an enemy? Do we allow despair to grow into bitterness and envy? Do we allow the hurtful actions of others to sprout violence in our own spirit? Or do we cling to the promise of God whose love for us is steadfast and allow that love to keep our hearts soft and open and ready to share mercy and compassion and empathy with others?
When we are flourishing, do we allow our hearts to turn inward, growing forgetful and numb to the cries of those in pain? Do we grow judgmental of those who are struggling, or begin to imagine that we are self-sufficient and the center of the universe? Or do we humbly give thanks every day for whatever blessing and bounty we enjoy by the grace of God and allow that grace to strengthen our hearts for greater generosity, solidarity, and patience?
What do you allow your circumstances to do to your heart? To your engagement with other people?
Life is so tender and precious. We hold so much, all the time. Every person you encounter bears scars and triumphs and longings and fears and dreams and difficulties you will know nothing about. And in our oversaturated culture, moving at an increasingly inhumane pace, there is little time to listen or acknowledge the complicated state of the human hearts we encounter every day. I’m not saying we’re supposed to pour out our heart to strangers or expect that of others. But part of our spiritual practice as Jesus-followers is to remember that every person is a beloved child of God, a person of dignity and worth. We are asked to remember that every person experiences blessing and challenge in their own unique mixture. We can at least try to be thoughtful and kind and patient. We can watch our mouth. We can take a breath and imagine that someone’s bad behavior or bad driving or lashing out might be because of some present suffering or fear. And we can exercise patience and thought in our response. And when we have opportunity, we can practice loving our enemies which will take a variety of forms but will, according to Jesus, yield reward. I tend to think the reward is freedom from becoming “the very thing you hate,” the prize of a heart that has grown larger and whose brokenness becomes an opening for more of the world to fall in and more of God’s love to shine out.
Many we call saints throughout history are those who even in their imperfections have managed to allow the light of God’s love to shine through, to reveal something of life’s meaning and possibility, to help others make sense of the blessing and challenge that is human life. Many we call saints are those who have persevered, who have held fast to the promises of God, and have remembered through acts of persistent, sacrificial love the dignity and worth and need of their neighbors. And among the saints of our personal lives are those who have simply shown us what love is. Among the saints of our lives are those who have struggled and failed and fallen and gotten back up to try again; and also those who hadn’t the strength to get back up or do better but whose lives have blessed our own even still. The saints of our lives have shaped and formed us through a luminous and complicated mystery of love and influence, strength and tenderness, silence and speech, fulfillment and disappointment, laughter and tears. Their love has landed in our hearts and our hearts are better for it.
Today, we give thanks for the ways the saints have helped us know something of love, mercy, humility, compassion, and justice. We give thanks for the promise that all our beloved dead dwell eternally in the light and love of Christ. And together we pray for the grace to follow in the way of the saints, to love even when it is hard, to love as God loves, to allow even our brokenness to be a blessing, an opening where God’s perpetual light shines through.