April 26, 2020 – “God’s Questions: If you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” by Rev. Cody Sandahl
View the Sermon Video
First Scripture = 2 Kings 6:15-23
15When an attendant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. His servant said, “Alas, master! What shall we do?” 16He replied, “Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.” 17Then Elisha prayed: “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. 18When the Arameans came down against him, Elisha prayed to the Lord, and said, “Strike this people, please, with blindness.” So he struck them with blindness as Elisha had asked. 19Elisha said to them, “This is not the way, and this is not the city; follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.” And he led them to Samaria. 20As soon as they entered Samaria, Elisha said, “O Lord, open the eyes of these men so that they may see.” The Lord opened their eyes, and they saw that they were inside Samaria. 21When the king of Israel saw them he said to Elisha, “Father, shall I kill them? Shall I kill them?” 22He answered, “No! Did you capture with your sword and your bow those whom you want to kill? Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink; and let them go to their master.” 23So he prepared for them a great feast; after they ate and drank, he sent them on their way, and they went to their master. And the Arameans no longer came raiding into the land of Israel.
We are continuing our series looking at the questions that God and Jesus ask in the Bible. Last week we heard how God asked Moses, “What is that in your hand?” With his paltry stick in hand, along with obedience to God and God himself, miracles happened through Moses.
This week we are in the Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew. This is a sermon from Jesus that spans multiple chapters – they didn’t get out early from church on this one! It’s one of his most comprehensive teachings on the true nature of God. Our text today is in the first chapter of Jesus’ sermon.
Main Scripture = Matthew 5:43-48
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Well there they were, in the middle of a hot desert. The sand stretched on as far as the eye could see. The soldiers were busily carrying out their very specific orders. The two commanders were overseeing the activity very intently. They were searching for an enemy who had crashed somewhere in this desert.
The troops were carrying out a very peculiar search. They worked in teams of two. Each pair carried a long object with multiple protrusions spaced very narrowly apart. And they were dragging these contraptions through the sand very slowly.
One of the commanders turned toward the other and asked, “Do you think we’re taking our orders too literally, sir?” “No! The president said to comb the desert, so we’re combing the desert!” Extra points if you email me what movie that’s from!
Maybe, just maybe, they were missing the point of their orders, right? In this particular section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was correcting some misunderstandings about what was written in what we call the Old Testament. So we have this pattern where Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…” Jesus wasn’t changing what God meant. Jesus was correcting some ways that the religious teachers misunderstood what God meant.
Sometimes we as humans read things differently from what the original author intended. Have you ever run into that? Our leadership team spent several months developing a ministry plan for our church. We finished it a little before all of this disruption, so you haven’t heard much about it. But it’s there! And it’s good! Consider this a teaser!
But as we were debating how to phrase some of our values, I was getting strange feedback on one of them in particular. I had written that one of our core values as a church is to “prioritize relationships.” And some people were very taken aback by that. They asked me why some relationships are more important than others. And it took me like two weeks to realize what they meant! When they heard “prioritize relationships,” they thought I meant that we choose some relationships to prioritize over others. But what I meant was that relationships are our #1 priority! Once we achieved that understanding, we changed it to say our church embraces relationships. I’m sure somewhere out there is someone who hears that very differently than we intend, too! But at least we got that misunderstanding out of the way!
In the centuries between the original writing of the books of the Old Testament and when Jesus lived, many misunderstandings had accumulated that needed correcting. So Jesus offered those correctives in the Sermon on the Mount and many other teachings throughout his ministry.
In our text today, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” As with many things in the Bible, if you cherry pick a few verses you can build up an argument for hating your enemy. But listen to what’s written in Exodus 23:
“When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, you shall bring it back. When you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free, you must help to set it free.”
Does that sound like hating your enemy? I think not.
Proverbs 17 says that one who rejoices over another’s misfortune will not go unpunished by God. Does that sound like hating your enemy? I think not.
Proverbs 25 says, “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink.” Does that sound like hating your enemy? I think not.
And the verses that were used to justify hating your enemies were actually getting at a slightly different point. They talked about God’s enemies. Not my enemies. Not your enemies. God’s enemies. I can define my enemies pretty easily. I can define the people who annoy me or frustrate me pretty easily. It’s not as easy for me to define who is an enemy of God. Whenever people try to make that list, it’s remarkable how much it overlaps with our own list of enemies. It’s almost as if we assume that because we don’t like someone, God must not like them either.
But Jesus blew that out of the water! He talked with the hated Samaritans. He valued women instead of ignoring them. He let those annoying children come to him. He touched lepers. He cured the servant of a Roman. He forgave a woman caught in the act of adultery. Some of those people were on the enemy list. But they weren’t on God’s enemy list. Be wary of defining someone as an enemy of God. God tends to surprise us on that one.
So what does it mean to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you?” We’ve talked about the different kinds of love in the Greek language. So “love your enemies” doesn’t mean have good feelings toward them. It means choosing to want good things for them, and being willing to do something to help them. As we heard already, the Old Testament gives specific examples like returning their animal that wanders away and not rejoicing when bad things happen to them.
But praying for those who persecute you? I mean, come on Jesus! One of my mentors joked that Jesus never told us what we should pray for those who persecute us. So let’s pray for their destruction! We can whip out some good Psalms on that one!
But that’s only a joke. The actual sense of this phrase does give us some direction. It implies advocating to God on their behalf. That’s what it means to pray for those who persecute you. Advocating to God on their behalf. Not advocating for their destruction, advocating for them.
Grace Versus Justice
Nadine Collier was given a chance to address a man who had persecuted her very tangibly and very personally. Nadine’s daughter, Ethel, was one of the nine people who died in the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. As she addressed her daughter’s murderer, as she addressed this man who killed her daughter and eight others because they were black, she said this to him through her tears: “You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again – but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul…If God forgives you, I forgive you.”
“Love your enemies,” Jesus said, “and pray for those who persecute you.” Advocate for them to God. Nadine Collier did that. She wasn’t able to do that because she was born with some freakish ability to forgive. Forgiving isn’t a unique talent like dunking a basketball. Advocating to God for someone who has hurt you isn’t some special quirk of DNA like your height or eye color. Choosing grace over vengeance isn’t a privilege of the 1%. It’s a choice.
It’s a hard choice, sometimes. Sometimes, as with Nadine Collier, it’s a choice made with tears streaming down your face. Sometimes it’s a choice spoken through gritted teeth. Sometimes it’s a choice that makes your face look like when your parents told you that you had to eat your vegetables as a kid because they’re good for you. But it’s a choice.
Did the shooter in South Carolina deserve Nadine’s forgiveness and grace? No. But she chose it anyway because of Jesus. Did the Good Friday crowd deserve God’s forgiveness and grace? No. But Jesus prayed, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Grace means advocating to God on behalf of someone even though they don’t deserve it. Because you and I don’t deserve the grace we receive from Jesus. Pass that grace along. All it takes is a choice.
In fact, Jesus goes further. He asks the question, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?” If you want to be counted among the followers of Jesus, that means loving people who don’t love you. That means advocating to God for people who hate you. Jesus says that this choice is part of being “perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The word “perfect” here implies reaching your goal. Becoming who you are meant to be.
If you want to be who God made you to be – if you want to reach God’s goal for you – love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. We just updated our son’s educational goals in light of his special needs. There are all of these very detailed goals and how to measure them. Choosing grace instead of vengeance is one of God’s goals for you. It’s part of your spiritual plan. You probably wouldn’t choose to have it in your spiritual plan. But it’s there. It’s a big one, in fact, according to Jesus.
Grace During COVID
Now, I’m going to guess that many of the people hearing this have had some strong emotions toward other people recently. Maybe those emotions weren’t in-person. Maybe they were sent over the airwaves at someone or at a group of people. Maybe some of us have had negative thoughts toward people who have very different responses to this novel coronavirus?
What kind of attitude should you have toward “those” people – according to Jesus? How should you be thinking about “those” people – according to Jesus? “Love your enemy, and pray for those who persecute you…If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?”
Well if you’re still with me, if you didn’t just turn off the video, if you didn’t just close the browser tab, let me share a perspective that I believe is important. This is one of the rarest things in the world – a social media post making the rounds that’s actually useful! That’s rarer than platinum!
The observation made by this post is that we are NOT in the same boat during this disruption. We are in the same storm, but we are not in the same boat. Let me say that again – we are in the same storm, but we are not in the same boat.
I’ve seen this when we do our highs, lows, and prayer requests with my men’s Bible study group. Some of the guys have very little to do. They’re chillin’. Other guys in the group are busier than ever. Some guys have felt a sense of peace. Others have felt like their world is spinning. As I’ve spoken to friends and neighbors, some have lost their jobs. Others are having to work double because their company let a bunch of people go.
I know someone who is happy because the $600/week extra unemployment benefit allows her to earn more by not working than she did working. I know someone else whose businesses are completely shut down and yet only received a couple hundred bucks total from the government.
I know people whose houses have never been cleaner, who are getting all those “some day” projects done right now. And I know a bunch of parents who are discovering that being a teacher is hard!
A couple of months ago, I was remarking to our leadership team that I was excited. Usually pastors head into their sabbaticals burned out and hanging on by the skin of their teeth. I was there late last year, but I was getting spiritually refreshed in January and February before my sabbatical. How nice would it be to enter my sabbatical with spiritual and emotional energy instead of feeling drained!
Instead, it turns out the Holy Spirit was giving me the gift of the energy I needed for this time and my sabbatical has to wait a year.
I know people who have taken “stay at home” so seriously that their neighbors wonder if they died in there! And on the other hand I saw a 30-person birthday party happening in my neighborhood last week.
I’ve spoken to doctors and nurses who feel that this is the greatest medical challenge of their lives. And I’ve spoken to other doctors who feel that this is all greatly exaggerated. I’m not talking about people I’ve heard on TV. I’m talking doctors and nurses I’ve actually communicated with. That’s a big range of takes on this virus from people who know a thing or two about medicine.
I know people who are very focused on saving lives right now. I know other people who are worried that the loss of livelihoods will cause more damage than the virus itself.
So here’s the part where, as one of my former pastors used to say, I go from preaching to meddling.
Jesus calls us to love those who are handling this virus very differently than we are. Jesus calls us to pray for them – to advocate to God for them. And Jesus calls us to do this because, even though we aren’t in the same boat, even though our experiences of this disruption are hugely different, we are still sons and daughters of God. We are brothers and sisters of Jesus.
This means wanting good things and praying for those who tired of being trapped at home AND those who think the state is moving too fast in relaxing restrictions. This means wanting good things and praying for the neighbor who is staying at home to the point of being a ghost AND the neighbor who doesn’t care about social distancing. This means wanting good things and praying for the politician you respect AND the politician who makes you want to throw a shoe at the TV. Pro tip – if you do throw a shoe, make sure the TV is mounted to the wall securely.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Some of you are thinking, “Yeah! That’s right! Those people need to learn to care more about what I care about!” That’s probably true. But Jesus is also saying that YOU need to care more about THEM and what THEY care about. This goes both ways.
I mentioned our church ministry plan and the value of “embracing relationships.” Another value we aspire to is to “demonstrate the love of Christ at all times – even when politics or theology might divide us.” So as the pastor of a church where that huge range is represented, may we choose to “demonstrate the love of Christ at all times – even when our approach to COVID-19 might divide us.”
We’re going to have differences of opinion on how to handle this disruption. We’re going to have differences of opinion on how our church should respond. We’re going to have differences of opinion on what ministries should or should not be doing during this time. We’re going to have differences of opinion on when we should gather again in-person and what that should look like. That’s fine. Please pray for me and for our leadership team to find God’s wisdom in that.
But I won’t stand for us attacking each other because of those differences of opinion. Because we are all sons and daughters of God. We are all brothers and sisters of Jesus. All of us have this goal on our spiritual plan from God: “love your enemies and bless pray for those who persecute you.” This is a great opportunity to practice that goal. Amen.