Love: the Verb (Including, Everyone's Favorite Bible Verse)

Scripture can be found here

Every once in a while I sit down at the end of the week to write my sermon, and one thought and one thought only occurs to me:

What was I thinking?

What kind of caffeine high—that rush of optimistic energy that makes you feel indestructible and brilliant and hopeful and even happier than usual—what kind of mood altering substance was I on when I thought, “Hey, I’ll totally preach on Luke 6:27-38!”

Why did I want to tackle what feels like an endless list of stuff most of us find nigh on impossible?

It’s possible I am just speaking about myself.

This week in a meeting, someone I love reminded me that one reason people join with a faith community is that they take seriously the work of self-reflection, and thus, self-improvement—the desire to become better people, according to Jesus’s or God’s definition of what that looks like. And I imagine that’s why, weeks and weeks ago, I zeroed in on this passage.

But. Oh my. This stuff is hard.

We are still with Jesus, and he is still preaching his “Sermon on the Plain.” We are picking up right where we left off last week. Same crowd—disciples and apostles and the hurting but hopeful public who have been following Jesus around for healing, of their hearts and souls and bodies.

Love your enemies, Jesus says. To which most of us instinctively respond, Hey now! Last time I checked, “enemies” are people who hate us, who wish us ill, who want to hurt us. Or… now that I think about it… maybe they’re people we’ve hurt? I’m not sure.

Do good to those who hate you, he continues.

Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.

Now, this last one stopped me in my tracks. That word. “Abuse.” But a moment with a Greek dictionary, looking at the word behind our translation (a word I cannot pronounce, no matter how many times I practice it) told me, Jesus is not talking about physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse. This is the less commonly used meaning of that word these days: this is about someone is speaking badly about you, abusing your reputation and not your body.

Which helps me to clarify: Here’s how this passage progresses.

Jesus starts with feelings—when people feel a certain way towards us.

He moves onto words—when people try to hurt us verbally.

And then he moves onto actions—hitting us, stealing from us.

So—the assumption is that most if not all of us have someone we have an uneasy or even hostile relationship with. (Or maybe, a severed relationship.)

Jesus’ recommended response is that we should love them like crazy.

Love them. Do good for them. Essentially, do the exact opposite of what they are doing.

The reason this is hard is that, evolutionarily speaking, we are wired for just the opposite behavior. We are wired to either fight or run. If we fight—someone could get hurt. If we run, there’s another kind of hurt, a rupture in a relationship.

I’m not sure which of these is worse. If we’re fighting with someone—trading insults, or having heated disagreements—well, at least we’re still in relationship, even though it might be a terrible relationship, or a hard one. If someone chooses the flight option, we are faced with a long, cold winter of the soul, where that relationship is concerned. And that is a different kind of pain, one it can be more complicated to heal.

But then, Jesus turns to what can fall under my assumptions about what “abuse” means.

“If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:29-31)

Before I go any further, I want to say: If in a relationship someone continually screams at us, or belittles us, or makes us feel terrible about ourselves, or, God forbid, hits us, harms us, gives us bruises—then we have to get help. Then we are in a situation of abuse that neither God nor Jesus wants us in, because we are God’s precious and beloved children. That’s when we need help from others. That’s when we need to confide in a doctor, or a teacher, or a trusted friend.

See, this is the thing. Again and again in our walk of faith, we confuse love with a feeling. That we will feel warmly towards those we are supposed to love—people like, the kid who tortured our kid in school. Just an example. A completely hypothetical example. And it is true, that sometimes love starts with feelings. We learn to love our parents or grandparents or other caregivers when they have behaved lovingly towards us, and taught us what love is, so that and we feel a warm, loving feeling towards them. Or, we fall into romantic love with someone to whom we’re drawn—for many reasons, some logical and some unfathomable. But even in those two instances, when love starts as a feeling? It always ends up as a verb. Jesus starts with feelings, he moves on to words, and then to actions. We have to learn what it is to behave lovingly towards those we love, even when we are having a disagreement with them. Even when they have hurt us, badly. Even when we have become estranged over some fundamental inability to accept one another. That is when we learn the truth. Love is always a verb. To quote the marvelous Jane Austen, “It isn’t what we say or think that defines us, but what we do.” And to quote Jesus—and, on some level, every major religion, somewhere in their basic tenets, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Jesus is advocating a kind of open-heartedness with ourselves and open-handedness with our possessions that pretty much flies in the face of everything you and I have been taught. We grew up learning that people shouldn’t hit us, and if they do, we should have some recourse about that. And the truth is: Some of us do. And some of us don’t.

The people Jesus was talking to when he said these words, by and large, had no recourse when they were harmed in the ways he’s describing here. Judea, where he was preaching and teaching and healing, was occupied territory; everywhere you looked, practically, there were Roman soldiers who could use force at will to gain the cooperation of the little people. They could strike the people, they could take their property at will, and there was no recourse. Here I think Jesus is offering a kind of nonviolent resistance—there were plenty of revolutionaries who were advocating fighting back, but Jesus wasn’t. He was advocating a kind of radical kindness and peacefulness that might just disarm the soldiers’ hearts—a response they wouldn't know what to make of, something to get them thinking, and perhaps, reconsidering.

And so Jesus sums up his teaching: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? …If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.” (Luke 6:32-33) Jesus has been talking about God’s new reign, the kingdom—what some, today call, the kin-dom—of God. Jesus wants his followers to be recognizable by their behavior. “They will know we are Christians by our love.”

Jesus is asking us to go, not only against our own instincts, but also against the basic way our society is structured. To embrace a kind of peaceful resistance to violence that could even be contagious, if enough of us embraced it wholeheartedly.

I don’t think any of us can do all these things, with all the people who might be considered “enemies,” overnight. I think we have to start small; we have to start where we are. We start with the people closest to us who irritate us or insult us or otherwise drive us crazy. We adopt what one wise woman I know calls “a softened heart” towards them. We try to look at them with what Buddhism calls “beginner’s mind.” This phrase comes from the opening lines of a well-loved book by Zen master Shunryu Suzuki:

“In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities,

but in the expert's there are few.”

The problem with the people who drive us crazy—whether they are people we live with, or work with, or see at the Rotary Club—is that we think we are experts on them. Think about it. We think we know what they’ll say, what they’ll do, their every next move—and when we’re right, it drives us doubly crazy.

But what it we adopted “beginner’s mind” towards them? What if we looked at them, listened to them, thought about them, with the curiosity of a learner? What if we assumed that we actually know very little about them? It’s entirely possible that we don’t know their deepest struggles or most painful heartaches or the memories that still give them nightmares ten or thirty or fifty years later. What if we opened our hearts to a new experience of them, as if it were our first?

My working title for this sermon was “Everyone’s Favorite Bible Verse.” When I first thought of that title, I was dead serious. There’s one verse in here that I think we all really do love—can you guess which one?

“Judge not, lest ye be judged.” That’s how I usually recall it, the King James Version eclipsing all others for my memory’s sake. And, of all the content of this long passage, that may in fact be verse we like best for the simple reason that it opens to us the possibility that we will benefit from it, if others observe it. Sweet! Which, turns out to be exactly Jesus’ strategy all along.

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned,” Jesus says. He goes on, “Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” (Luke 6:37-38)

Jesus has a plan. The plan is this: We soften our hearts towards one another. We regard one another with “beginner’s mind.” We are kind in the face of cruelty. We are peaceful in the face of aggressiveness. And… I’m sure you know this—moods and states of mind can be contagious. One peaceful person can calm down an office filled with anxiety, and one angry person can spark anger—and fear—in a crowd. Jesus is asking us to become contagiously peaceful, loving, and giving. He is confident that this will be the beginning of a community of peace, love, and giving, that will spread in the most beautiful and hopeful way; so much so, that we will soon realize we are receiving back, just what we have given.

May it be so. Thanks be to God. May it be so.