Genesis 45:3-11, 15;Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40;1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50; Luke 6:27-38
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
February 24, 2019 –Seventh Sunday After Epiphany
“Do I not destroy my enemy,” Abraham Lincoln asked, “when I make a friend of him?’ He was a wise and insightful man. Maybe that is the only way to destroy an enemy.
This is a hard lesson Jesus gives us today. Even as I prepared for our time together this morning, I thought of a lot of things that had happened at one time or another that still make me want to stop and take a few deep breaths.
Maybe you have a few of those moments, too, as an old memory comes back. You are just daydreaming and there you are again, in the midst of the situation, and the shock of whatever the surprise was is sweeping over you again.
That is when…when it happens to me…that I try to remember to pause and breathe and let the moment pass.
Maybe there has been a time when something has happened that caused you to feel anger. Things were going along just fine and then something was said or something was done that caused you to feel unfairly treated or some injustice at hand.
That mounts a more difficult challenge for you, in the middle of your day. The monster has just jumped out of the closet and screamed in your face.
But there was no monster…There wasn’t even a closet for the monster to jump out of. Your response was quick and forceful, but what caused it? Where did it come from?
Or maybe you have been on the other side of such a moment. Suddenly, someone was in your face screaming and you can’t understand what just happened.
I wouldn’t want to be on either side of either of those situations…but I’d rather be taking it than dishing it out. And I would hope that while I was taking it I wouldn’t want to be provoked into dishing it out. I hope I would be seeing a third way.
I coached a Babe Ruth League team one summer when I was back in Shelby from college. At a crucial point in the game, one of the other team’s players slid into third base and my third baseman tagged him out.
The base runner took a swing at my third baseman and my third baseman kicked at the runner. Neither one of them made contact, but it was not a good situation. I got my guy off the field and went to tell the umpire about a change we were making.
The next thing I knew, the other coach was over on my bench shaking a finger in my third baseman’s face. I stepped in in front of him and told him to get off my bench.
“He kicked at Mark!” he shouted at me. “He took a swing at George,” I shouted back, “so you go back to your bench and talk to Mark and I’ll stay here and talk to George!”
He left and I asked George, “Do I need to say anything?” Poor George looked like he was getting ready for me to hit him and just said, “No…No, sir.”
It takes a lifetime to make a lifelong friend, but it only takes a few seconds to lose one. Alan and I had never been together in school but Shelby was a small town. It was hard to see him drive by after that, scrupulously not looking at me.
As I looked back at that evening of coaching this week, it seemed to me that both of the boys had acted poorly in that situation…but neither one of them had acted as poorly as Alan or me.
I still regret it. It was not the best way, I am sure, to teach them how important character is. The number one thing I regret is that Alan is gone now and I never had a chance to talk to him again.
That flash of anger and action in our soul is one part of our beings… our brain stem lashing out when we feel threatened. It happens in an instant.
That deep regret is our neo-cortex. It takes time to process events. It doesn’t necessarily look for the easiest way out of trouble…or even the quickest.
But it is looking for something that will work for all time …win-win-win. There might be a way, if we look for it. I’ll get back to you on that…
Our brain stem tells us to terminate the threat, now. It tells us to get even. Our neocortex tells us to love our enemies. Since World War II we have survived as the human race because our neo-cortex had seen, as Dwight Eisenhower put it, that War is Hell.
Up until that cataclysmic event, War was thought to be a noble thing, calling forth the highest qualities in the human frame. After that…if not after World War I…War was an indulgence one generation could not afford because we finally had the power to end all plant and animal life on earth. A miscalculation could end all future generations’ hopes.
Our neo-cortex is the one that is whispering, “Love your enemies” in your ear. Our brain stem screams, “Kill him!” They are both inside us. The question is which one will we feed, which one will we encourage …because the one you feed and encourage…the one you cherish…is the one that is going to shape your life.
When you wish upon a star, your dreams can come true… in fact, it is more likely that you will realize your dreams if you ask for the power and grace to do it.
So Jesus was way ahead of his time, with that ‘love your enemy’ stuff. Maybe he still is…but he shouldn’t be. Maybe it’s time for our time to catch up with Jesus.
Jesus had a great teacher waiting for him in the scriptures when he was ready to hear the story of Joseph, Son of Jacob, just like we have in Jesus..
Jacob had twelve sons by two wives and Joseph was the first son of the wife he loved: Rachel. His father favored him, angering Joseph’s brothers, and he didn’t make things any better by showing off.
His brothers decide to kill him one day, but one of them, Reuben, says let’s not kill him. Let’s sell him into slavery. Joseph is taken to Egypt where his obvious gifts make him a servant in the household of none other than Pharaoh.
The wife of the head servant makes a pass at Joseph and he rebuffs her. She is offended and tells her husband Joseph made a pass at her. He is thrown into prison.
While he is there, Pharaoh’s baker and cupbearer are there with him. It must have been a white-collar prison… the Allenwood of the Hebrew Bible.
They each have a dream. Joseph interprets each of them. The cupbearer comes to him first and tells him about vines growing grapes he squeezes into wine and Pharaoh drinks from his cup. Joseph tells him he will be freed in three days. He asks, “Please remember me to Pharaoh.”
The baker tells him about cakes he makes for Pharaoh that are being eaten by birds and Joseph says it means he will be executed in three days. Both prophesies come to pass.
But the cupbearer forgets to say anything to Pharaoh…until Pharaoh has a dream about seven sleek head of cattle followed by seven scraggly head of cattle, then seven fat ears of corn followed by seven thin blighted ears of corn.
Pharaoh is troubled and wants someone to explain it to him. That’s when the cupbearer says, “Well, there was this guy in prison…”
Joseph tells Pharaoh that the dreams mean that there will be seven years of bumper crops in Egypt followed by seven years of famine. So build storehouses and store up your crops for seven years to be ready for the famine. Then all the world shall come bow to you and fall at your feet.
It works and Joseph has so impressed Pharaoh that he is made first minister in Pharaoh’s court. The famine spreads to the Promised Land and Joseph’s brothers are among those who come to fall at the fee of…the first minister of Pharaoh.
Many years have passed in our story, just as many years since Alan and I had our shouting match. The brothers must have had a hard time living with the secret they had.
They would have seen what pain they had caused Jacob. During all these years Jacob had gone on, thinking that his favorite son was dead.He surely paid many times over for the way he had cheated his brother Esau out of their father’s blessing.
But now, Joseph is prime minister of Egypt, the storehouse of a famine-stricken world. The bad news is that they have done a horrible brain-stem-inspired thing to him. The good news is that he has had a lot of time to think about it.
That’s one of the little things we tell ourselves to not act in haste or out of anger. Count to 10. Take a deep breath. Walk around the block, and if you are still made, walk around the town.
Alan was older than I was but I am now a lot older than either Alan or I was at the time. If I were as old as I am now, I would be one of the oldest people in the bleachers that night. Time has a way of giving us wisdom, and Joseph has had a lot of time, too.
Joseph recognizes his brothers but they do not recognize him. He reveals himself and they are terrified. They assume that he would do to them what they plotted to do to him…and he has the power to do anything he wants.
The most powerful man in the world chooses that moment to break down and cry in front of people who believed…with some justification…that he was about to kill him…and he told them to go back to the East side and get their stuff and come live the rest of their lives in the Flathead Valley.
He said Land of Goshen, but it is the same thing. He is giving them one of the most fruitful valleys in Egypt where they will be able to “live off the fat of the land.”
When they return, Joseph has had even more time to think about it and he will tell them then, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”
Jesus knew this story, just as he knew all things. He saw the brutality of the world and he knew the goodness that God had put in every human heart.
We live in a day when we see allies and enemies more than we see friends. The lessons of the two great World Wars of the 20th Century have faded in memory.
We live in a day when the social media in our pocket is more precious to us than the human being sitting across from the table from us.
We live in a time so remote from the Great Depression or the Potato Famine or Little House On The Prairie that we think our stuff and being ‘right’ is more important than our neighbors and being good.
Beware, my friends, Jesus might say. The individual is still the most precious unit of measure in God’s world, and money is still just a form of currency. Love even your enemies, for they are people. They are of infinite worth to God and to Jesus.
Do not think that you are better than anyone. They need your mercy and understanding now, perhaps, but you will need theirs later.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote about the insanity of Stalin’s prison system in The Gulag Archipelago. After being held in prison as a scapegoat from 1945 to 1956, he ridiculed the system but he had come to one very fundamental understanding.
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Love your enemies, Jesus says. Love your enemies, the angels of our better natures say. Love your enemies, Pogo would say, “because we have met the enemy and he is us.”
Do yourself a favor. Love your enemies.
O Lord, what is it that you want to do in the world through us… through me…this day? Amen.