February 28, 2016

Hard to Love

Do you remember some of the phrases your dad said a lot when you were growing up?  Every dad has these.  It’s part of the secret dad creed (but if you tell anyone I’m afraid the consequences will be quite grave so just keep this between us).  One of the things I remember my dad saying a lot to me was, “If you mess with the bull, you’ll get the horns.”  The point, of course, is that if you pick a fight with something or someone bigger and stronger than you there’s a good chance you’ll lose.  I learned this the hard way on a few occasions.  We had a friend of the family named Jerry who we saw every now and then who was always fun to mess with, but he wasn’t much one to go easy on you just because you were a kid.  One Christmas the family was all gathered at his house and I was being a bit bolder than wisdom would have suggested was prudent and quickly found myself locked in a closet, beating on the door and screaming to be let out.  In messing with the bull that night I definitely got the horns.

And though Jerry intended for it to all be in good fun, he was treating me like his enemy (and in that moment I very playfully was so it was only fair).  That may have been a silly example of this, but more often than not things are entirely more seriously and go much, much worse for the people involved.  For example, not long after King David had consolidated his rule over Israel he heard about the death of a friend of his from his time on the run from King Saul.  This friend was the king of the Ammonites, a people who had a long and antagonistic relationship with the people of Israel.  Still, the king had been a friend to him so David sent some servants to express his condolences to Hanun, the king’s son who was now reigning in his place.  Unfortunately, Hanun had some advisors who remembered well the past tensions between the nations and their advice to him was to treat David’s servants not as a gracious word from a friend of his father, but as potential enemy spies helping him to plot how to conquer the nation during the turmoil of a leadership transition.

The result was…well…let me just read it to you.  From 2 Samuel 10: “So Hanun took David’s servants and shaved off half the beard of each and cut off their garments in the middle, at their hips [the Hebrew here doesn’t use the word “hips”], and sent them away.”   The point here was not to injure the men, but to embarrass them—and indeed, having half a beard would look ridiculous enough, but walking around naked from the waist down in a very modest culture would have been exponentially worse—in order to send the message that Ammon was a strong nation and any attempt by David to interfere in their affairs would result in a similar embarrassment for the whole of Israel.  What the king and his advisors did not realize, though, was that they were messing with a bull in David and over the next few months they got the horns in rather dramatic fashion.

And yet, when it comes to behavior toward someone perceived as an enemy what the king of Ammon did is far more common than a more restrained and measured approach.  Now, we may not treat our perceived enemies in quite the same manner as Hanun did David’s servants, but we nonetheless have ways of treating our “enemies” somewhat differently than our friends.  Lisa and I had the chance to go to Hawaii for our anniversary last year.  One of the first things we were told in getting ready for our trip was that everything over there costs a lot more.  When knew this going in, but the $26 pineapple we found (and didn’t buy) at a farmer’s market one morning left us thoroughly convinced of this.  On our way over, though, we met a woman native to the island state who shared with us that locals with a Hawaiian ID were generally charged a lower price for pretty much everything than tourists were.  Hawaiians generally love tourists…as long as they do the tourist thing and go home in a few days after leaving lots of their money behind.  But tourists aren’t friends.  We see this in other ways too.  Watch a basketball game sometime.  When one team scores and catches the ball it’s not uncommon for them, rather than handing the ball to the official or their opponents in order to inbound it and continue the game, to simply drop it on the floor or even give it a little tap in the opposite direction.  It’s a small gesture, but it says, “You’re not one of us.”  Even more personally than that, though, think about the last time you weren’t happy with a friend or even your spouse.  Even if you didn’t tell them with words how you were feeling I suspect that you let them know all the same through a series of nonverbal cues—crossed arms, rolled eyes, exasperated sighs, and so on and so forth.  At the same time, I would wager your behavior toward someone with whom you were more enamored did not reflect similar contempt.  The other person was hard to love in that moment and you made sure they knew it.

The fact is, we all have people in our lives who are hard to love.  Even if that’s usually only a temporary label for you, nonetheless there are some people in your life right now who you have a hard time loving.  The artwork Kelley created for this sermon series included photos of several different types of people who might naturally come to mind for you as hard to love.  There were homeless people on there.  There were criminals on there.  There was a Muslim man on there.  There were black people on there.  There were white people on there.  There were politicians There was a picture of Hillary Clinton on there.  There was a picture of Donald Trump on there.  There are more pictures we could have included as well.   We could have included people of various other faiths or even no faith.  We could have included more politicians.  We could have included environmentalists and animal rights supporters.  We could have included gun owners and hunters.  We could have included big city folks.  We could have included people who don’t know how to work the self-checkout computers at Home Depot or the people who can’t talk on their phone and drive at the same time or the people who cross in front of your car in the parking lot without bothering to give a courtesy wave or…hold on a minute…now I’m just giving you my own short list…I’d better cut that short.

Anyway, for all of us we have a list of pretty standard go-tos when it comes to people we consider hard to love.  But the reality is that’s a category which can easily hit a lot closer to home than some nameless face who’s a member of a groups we generally don’t like for one reason or another.  It may be that today the most relevant hard to love person for you is a friend or family member who doesn’t share your faith and you don’t know how to talk with them.  It could be even closer to home than that, though.  It could be your brother or sister.  It could be a parent.  It could be a child.  Come on parents: there are days when your kids are hard to love.  In fact sometimes it’s easier to detail out the days your kids aren’t hard to love.  Youth, you may face the same challenge with your parents.  It could be a co-worker.  It could be your spouse.  Ladies: think about the last time your husband was hard to love…prior to this morning!  Guys, same thing.  It could even be a fellow member of the church body.  The point is, if you limit your thinking about hard to love people to someone far away who you never actually interact with or even lay eyes on, it’s easy to forget that some of the hardest to love people in our lives are really the ones we encounter on a daily basis.  The problem with forgetting this is that when we do we don’t ever work on it.  If we don’t work on it, it doesn’t ever get easier.  And when something stays hard very long without showing any signs of getting any easier eventually we stop trying.  The problem of course is that when we switch from talking about some far off person in some far off place for whom our love is of little consequence to talking about one of these vital relationship that are part of the fabric of our everyday lives there is far too much at stake for us to risk finding ourselves in such a place.

With all of this in mind, this morning we are launching on a brand new sermon series called, Hard to Love, that will take us from now all the way to Easter.  Along the way we’ll hear some powerful stories and wrestle with some hard truths that will point us to just how important loving the hard to love people in our lives really is.  Then, as we get closer to Easter, we are going to make a turn together and face up to something that won’t be easy, but once we do, we’ll be able to celebrate Resurrection Sunday and understand just how powerful Easter really is than we have been able to do in perhaps quite some time.  Not only will you not want to miss a single part of this series, but this will be a great time to bring folks you know who are struggling with loving someone important in their lives; who are perhaps struggling with the very idea of the Gospel itself.  But this morning, before we can go very far, we need to establish a baseline from which the rest of what we’re going to talk about over the next few weeks can flow.  Because of this, if when we get to the end of our time together this morning you feel like the story isn’t finished yet…you’ll be right.  You’ll have to keep coming back until you’ve heard the whole thing.  I promise it will be worth your while.

This baseline is actually pretty simple to establish, it’s just not very easy.  It flows out of a bit of teaching from Jesus which if you have been around the church for very long you’ve probably heard.  In fact, this idea is something Christians are generally known as believing even if we aren’t quite as consistently known for putting it into practice.  The thing is, though, because of the influence of the Gospel on our culture, while folks who have been around the church are pretty well programmed to think in these terms—again, even if we don’t always put it into practice like we should—we forget that on the broader scale of human history this kind of thinking and the behavior accompanying it are a pretty rare affair.

This bit of teaching came when Jesus was talking to the crowds pretty early in His ministry.  He was taking the themes and big ideas of his famous Sermon on the Mount on the road and making sure everybody had a chance to hear this message.  This particular instance happened on a wide plain with a huge crowd gathered.  He started with some Beatitudes which, while not quite as famous as their counterparts in the Sermon on the Mount, nonetheless picked up some of the same themes.  This time, though, He went on to offer some woes or warnings to folks about some situations, attitudes, and behaviors that could make their lives more difficult than worldly wisdom would suggest they would.

From here, then, Jesus moves from the personal to the interpersonal and the way He frames this suggests He’s talking to more than just His followers in the crowd.  He’s offering some advice on wise living to anyone willing to give Him the time of day.  Grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures and you can take a look at this with me in Luke 6:27.

“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”  Ah, the old “love you enemies” bit.  We’ve heard it before.  We’re supposed to love our enemies.  Blah, blah, blah.  But let’s really think about this for a minute.  If you read this and use one of the many standard definitions of love common in our culture it comes off sounding like absolute nonsense.  Think about it: Have amorous feelings for your enemies.  Right.  How about this: Think good thoughts about your enemies and leave them to pursue the desires of their heart without judging them.  Well, if they are our enemies then the desires of their heart are probably not to our favor so why on earth would we want to do that?   Or maybe this: Like your enemies.  Um…they are our enemies so kind of by definition we don’t like them (nor they us for that matter).  See what I mean?  Nonsense.

Making any sense out of what Jesus says here and in the next few verses, then, absolutely demands our coming at it assuming on the correct definition of love.  Good thing we spent all that time talking about it last week!  When we properly understand love as an intentional decision to see someone else become fully who God designed them to be we all of a sudden find ourselves in a place in which we can start to wrap our brains around this.  And indeed, the three explanatory examples Jesus immediately offers after making the initial pronouncement point clearly in this direction.  If we are intentionally committed to seeing someone become fully who God designed them to be then it doesn’t matter if they hate us or curse us or even abuse us.  We are still going to do good to them, bless them, and pray for them because we want to see them become who God designed them to be.

Still, though, let’s not make light of how rare this kind of thinking is.  Simply put: people just don’t do this.  When someone curses us, we tend to curse them right back.  We respond in kind…and quickly.  When someone hates us we don’t sit around thinking of ways we can serve them.  At the very least we ignore and otherwise stay away from them.  At most we sit around thinking of ways we can cause them trouble.  When someone abuses us, we don’t lie down and take it.  We begin plotting our revenge.  We may pray against them, but we certainly don’t pray for them.  And just because I know some of you are country music fans and have Jaron Lowenstein’s “I Pray for You” running through your head right now, his song is a nearly perfect example of how the world around us reacts to Jesus’ words here.  There’s a reason in the version of this sermon that Matthew recorded Jesus said to the crowd: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’”  They had heard that.  A lot.  We still do today.  When we have people in our lives who are hard to love, our first and most natural reaction is to give in to the difficulty and refuse to love them.

What Jesus says next only serves to play into this tendency.  It does so by being really hard.  Like I told you a few minutes ago: this baseline is really simple to understand, but simple should in no ways be construed as easy.  Listen to this: “To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from the one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either.  Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back.”  Can we all just go ahead and agree that stuff sounds crazy.  We need to show strength when we are wronged, right?  If someone steals from us we should do whatever it takes to get our stuff back and to make them pay for taking it in the first place.  That’s just common sense.  And we can’t be giving to every beggar we pass on the street.  Poverty fighting experts of all stripes generally agree that’s not a good idea.  So what gives?

Well, the first thing we need to note is that Jesus was talking to an audience made up of folks who lived 2,000 years ago and thought like it.  Their cultural context resulted in them understanding these ideas somewhat differently from how we naturally do.  For example there was no such thing as social welfare then so giving to beggars was literally the only help they were ever going to receive.  Theirs was also an honor-shame culture in which every gift came with the expectation of a return.  The point here is that we need to work to understand what Jesus said through their eyes and ears before reacting to our initial assumptions about it.

The second thing we need to note, though, is what Jesus said next.  Look at this in v. 31: “And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.”   This is, of course, the famous Golden Rule.  Now skeptics and critics of the faith like to point out that Jesus was not the first person to espouse this idea.  A form of it exists in every other major world religion and philosophy, many predating Christianity by quite a long time.  But, Jesus was the first person to phrase it like this.  For most folks it went something like this: Don’t do unto others what you don’t want them doing unto you.  That’s the lazy-man’s version.  It’s an improvement on the most folks behave which is to do unto others whatever they do unto you.  But if you think about it, all you need to do to live up to this principle is not be a jerk.  Jesus’ rephrasing of the idea turned the standard version on its head.  He made it active and intentional: However it is you want other people to treat you…go ahead and treat them that way first.   Or perhaps to paraphrase this idea with our theme in mind: If you want the hard-to-love people in your life to become less hard to love…try loving them.

But, if all of that was advice that’s pretty good for anybody to follow, what comes next is much more specifically aimed at Jesus followers.  If you are not a Jesus follower you can laugh at how silly we all are here, but if you are, it’s time to put on your big boy boots.  Check this out back in the text at v. 32: If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you?”  The rather obvious response here is, “Well, at least a little bit because they keep loving me…” but Jesus has something more in mind for His followers than merely matching the standard thinking of the world around us.  Stay with me here: “For even sinners love those who love them.  And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you?  For even sinners do the same.  And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you?  Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount.”

In other words: Yes, everybody loves the people who love them.  Hitler was kind to his friends.  Kim Jong-Il did good things for his son Kim Jong-Un.  There’s honor among thieves.  That’s normal.  But as followers of Jesus, we’re not called to be normal.  As our current Bible study series on Sunday mornings declares, we are called to be distinct.  We are called to stand out.  We are called to something higher.  When it comes to the hard to love people in our lives—people we might otherwise identify as our enemies—behaving like everyone else does is simply not an option for us.  After all, who would want to be a part of a movement that will result in them being just like everybody else?  I sure wouldn’t, and you wouldn’t either.  If our behavior—even in our best moments—makes us indistinguishable from folks who neither have nor want anything to do with Jesus, why bother?

That’s why here at the end Jesus lays out this baseline for us when it comes to the hard-to-love people in our lives.  He does it by going back to what He said earlier and then building a framework around it that for followers of Jesus makes it not simply understandable, but essential.  Are you ready for this?  Look at v. 35 with me: “But love your enemies [that is, love the people in your life who are hard to love], and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons [and daughters] of the Most High [and here is the crux of the thing], for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.”  Let me put that last part in a little different way that we will come back to in a few weeks: “…but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Here’s why we are to go above and beyond the world around us and show love to the hard-to-love people in our lives: God has already done the same thing for us.  Think about it: have you ever been ungrateful for the things God has done for you?  Have you ever been hard to love for God?  I mean, technically none of us has because God is love and His love is entirely free from conditions, but that’s exactly the point!  Apart from God we all live lives that are steeped in evil and supremely ungrateful (for the only proper display of gratitude to God for giving us life in the first place is to give our lives unrestrainedly back to Him), and yet He is still good to us.  He’s kind to us.  He still works with great intentionality to see us become fully who He designed us to be.  More simply, He loves us.  And if the God who owes us nothing and yet gives us everything does so—has already done so—we ought to do the same for the hard-to-love folks in our own lives.  In other words: we love hard-to-loves because God does too.

Rather than making angry Facebook posts about your political opposites pray for them.  When your friends have let you down and turned you out, you find ways to bless them.  When your kids are jumping on your last nerve—and I’m preaching to myself here—you serve them and do good to them.  When your parents are making you want to put your head through a wall, you practice obedience and trust with them.  When your spouse is the last person in the world you want to think about loving, let alone liking, you love her; you love him, and start finding ways to show it.  You love your hard-to-loves because God does too.

And if that’s not clear enough, here are five more really practical ways to love the hard-to-loves in your life.  First, mind your manners.  It’s amazing how doing something as simple as saying “Please” and “thank you,” can change both our attitude toward others as well as their attitude toward us.  Second, remember what love is.  Love is an intentional decision to see someone become fully who God designed them to be.  If you’re going to love the hard-to-loves in your life that’s what you’ve got to do.  That’s what God does with us.  Any other approach will fail you.  Third, always respond to other people with kindness and never in kind.  When someone lobs a barb at us our first reaction is to throw one back—even if we only do it in our minds.  Yet what does that ever accomplish?  Nothing.  It only continues hostilities and keeps that hard-to-love barrier in place.  When we respond with kindness, though, the channels of love are opened and the potential for blessing increases exponentially.  Fourth, remember who you are and who they are.  You both are current or former sinners who are loved by the God of all grace and truth.  You are someone’s hard-to-love and yet you are loved.  Return the favor.  Finally, keep Jesus’ particular formulation of the Golden Rule well in mind.  Imagine the good things you want other people to do for you—even from the people for whom you are hard to love—and then take the initiative to do them for the people around you.  Take the lead because that’s exactly what God did for you, for us.  Christ died in our place while we were still sinners.  We love hard-to-loves because God does too.  It doesn’t matter who it is.  It doesn’t matter what they’ve done.  We love hard-to-loves because God does too.  And if you’ll come back for the next couple of weeks we’ll take a look at what this can accomplish.