The text for this sermon is Matthew 5:36-48
What wondrous love is this that God loves me. I know what you are thinking, of course God loves you Karl. Surely, I have to be one of God’s best products to come out of the 1964 model year. I have been married 28 years to the same person, raised a family responsibly, generous with my money and time to people in need and generally not a burden to society, plus, I am a pastor for goodness sake. If anyone has an inside track on divine love it has to be me.
What wondrous love it is that God loves all of me, not just the good stuff that I put on my resume, but the bad and the ugly parts of me, too. Believe me, I am a mix of all three. Some of you here could tell the rest more than a few bad things about me. And unfortunately, there are a few people who know some truly ugly things about me. There was this guy at my last church that hated me. We never got in a fight, he simply didn’t find my arrogance, self absorption and condescension as charming as others have. There is truly a laundry list of things not to love about me. I lust regularly. Take me to Roosters and you will see what gluttony looks like. Vanity? I can’t pass a mirror without worrying about my hair being out of place. That’s right, even bald guys worry about their hair.
This is what grace looks like, God loves me, delighting in the good, and in spite of the bad and the ugly. God loves me not just when I am lovable, but even when I am despicable. This is the nature of God. This is what God does. God loves.
God loves not just me, but Craig Wood, too. He is the 45 year old assistant gym teacher and middle school coach in Missouri that is accused of kidnapping a ten year old girl and killing her. We don’t know all of the details, but how can they be anything but horrific? We don’t know yet much about Craig Wood or if he is guilty. If guilty, he might be a tragic character even sympathetic, done in by his addictions or mental health battles. We may find out that he has fought his entire life against homicidal urges and lost the day he convinced Hailey to get into his father’s white pick up truck. Or, we might find out that he is pure evil, spreading pain and death in every community he has called home.
The crazy thing is that Craig Wood’s story does not determine God’s love for him. God has loved Craig Wood since the moment he was born. God has loved him celebrating the good in his life and in spite of the bad and now this act which if true, ugly seems to fall short of describing. God has blessed Craig with sunny days, full bellies, relationships and wealth. God loves him not just when he is loveable, but even when he is despicable, too. This is the nature of God. This is what God does. God loves.
God’s gift of love is in no relation to anything that I have done to deserve it, or you, or Craig Wood, either. In very real ways, a case can be made against loving any of us. When we abuse God’s creation in horrific ways like Craig Wood might have, or in stupid ways like I keep doing to my body at Roosters, we are enemies of God. We are destroying what God loves: us, others or the creation. Yet, God loves us in spite of the desolation to the world that our sinfulness causes. God loves enemies and friends alike, and in our lives we all alternate between the two.
This is the nature of God and as people made in the image of God, Jesus’ hope is that it become our nature, too. Our love for friends and enemies is to reflect God’s wondrous love that we first received. The wisdom of this world says this is crazy, and they have a point. Love is not a great strategy to conquer our enemies. Kill them with kindness! This might work if you are a waitress with a really grumpy customer, but all the kindness in the world is not likely to stop an invading army. Martin Luther King Jr. relying on this teaching was able to achieve monumental change, but his enemies killed him in the end and others died, too. Three civil rights workers were killed in Mississippi in 1964 trying to sign people up to vote and four little girls were killed when their Birmingham church was bombed. The hatred that an enemy has for us is real, dangerous and cannot be ignored.
Loving your enemies is crazy. It is a teaching from a guy that would eventually be overcome by his enemies and nailed to a cross. His love for the men who condemned him, didn’t stop them from finding a way to execute him publicly. His love for the men who whipped him, didn’t make any of the strikes hurt less. His love for the men who nailed him to that cross, didn’t stir the heart of any of them to bring him down before he breathed his last. His love was not a weapon, a way to manipulate someone else to get what he wanted. His love was simply his nature, his divine nature, his Godly nature and God wants it to be our nature, too.
In the waters of baptism, we have died to the wisdom of this world and embraced the wisdom of the Kingdom of Heaven. We have thrown off our old nature and put on our new nature, God’s nature, God’s essence, God’s Spirit resides within us now. Let that nature shine in our world, casting a reflection of God, God’s grace, God’s love. Be perfect as our God is perfect.
Loving our enemies looks like respecting the image of God they are made in, even if they have failed to respect that image in others. Loving our enemy might mean allowing an insult, a slap in the face to pass, rather than responding with words that can break their spirit or hurt them, even though that was their intent for us. Loving our enemy might mean walking away from a legal fight, even letting our opponent win both our shirt and our coat. Loving our enemy might mean going the extra mile for someone who will not appreciate it or even acknowledge it. Loving our enemy might mean sharing our hard earned money with someone who has squandered their own. Loving our enemy will always make us vulnerable and will always be risky. It will look crazy to the world and most often not well received. It might mean advocating that Craig Wood not be executed by the state for his crime but rather be kept in prison for life so that he can’t harm others. Imagine travelling to Springfield, Missouri tomorrow to advocate for the rights of Craig Wood.
Don’t shrug off today’s lesson, saying I guess that is why God is God and I am not. Instead, embrace it, love an enemy by real actions that demonstrates grace, an undeserved love. God’s grace is not only a gift God hopes you will bear to the brother and sister in your home or the brother or sister in Christ in the pew next to you. God’s grace is not just a gift God hopes you will bear to the sweet older neighbor next door and the scary teenager with the piercings and tattoos next door to them. God’s grace is a gift God hopes you will bear to even someone who hates you, wants ill to come to you, would destroy your life or spirit if they could. This is the kind of love God has. This is the nature of God and from the waters of baptism it can be our nature, too. Let your love cast a true reflection of God in our world. Amen