There's a word we don’t hear in our lessons today. We hear so much about love it almost just rolls past us. But one word I think we should engage is Dignity. It never appears in our lessons but I think is very much a part of what God’s law and Jesus’ teaching are about-the worth of each person God created matters to God. Dignity is a word sorely needed in our world on so many levels. Not the least of which is the notion that “Stand your ground” and “turn the other cheek” are incompatible.
Jesus is preaching and talking about loving neighbors and the crowd knows it. It’s from Leviticus-Love your neighbor as yourself. But here’s the thing- the word that is not in Leviticus-enemy. There’s no hating enemy in Leviticus. It might seem like Jesus is a little sloppy about remembering Leviticus. But I think he preaches to what he knows people have decided to believe. “Not my neighbor” means “OK to hate.”
He preaches dignity to the crowd for themselves, for those Galileans who are oppressed by the Roman rule, and for all their others. We all have “others.” The ones who are not neighbors to love.
I’m just back from the Youth Sleepover, where kids constantly question the scope of how much is really expected, questions about what each newly encountered situation demands: “ But Pastor…!” you REALLY mean I have to do THIS?” No wonder those 10 commandments became over 600 rules in Leviticus. We all ask the questions.
Today Jesus sums up God’s “yes” to our “No” about the poor, the stranger, the deaf, blind, rich, extended family, and more. All the people we encounter not those we want to. And if you think about your day and who you encounter- it’s often largely not family. If you stop and think many of us encounter and spend more time with the doctor, the store clerk, the bus driver, the food server, coworkers. What does it mean to love and honor them? With dignity? Maybe it starts with seeing them as people in the picture as opposed subjects of McWages, immigration limits, healthcare and more.
A little deeper, think about all the people you just cannot abide or maybe even have hurt you. Them too? One of our kids on the overnight is struggling with controlling anger. She already has a label-she has “anger management” issues. Like that ends the possibilities. She's been taught it's the response to everything that is challenging. When she gets mad she thinks nothing of “popping” the offender. But I have "anger management issues." She insists that “ I choose my attitude based upon how you treat me.” Sounds kind of like “eye for an eye.” And she can hold her anger and not let go. As I work with her to find better avenues, I shared with her the saying “holding a grudge is like letting someone live rent free in your head.” Why would any of us give that much of us to our "enemy"?
It sounds easy to talk the talk, but the real walk is so much harder. Because frankly til Jesus is done, there are no enemies. And love isn’t just about being nice, its about God’s framework as our lens. Our default says it’s not possible. Or at the least that some great models accomplish it but it’s not reality. It is easy to overlook God at the center of relationships-I am the Lord and YOUR God.
Our walking in God’s ways and also turning away from things takes God. Relationships and wisdom are not static. Not just memorized it in Sunday school. Not a simple set of brightline moments. We tend to collapse time and history in ways that take away the reality of all of the in between good and bad. Owning the journey may be one way to then recognize the importance of walking close with God in guidance. Even if it’s only in looking back that we see where we’ve been with God.
The truth is that if we really try, being God’s people, God’s reflection is heavy duty lifting. Yet, the early Christian church’s ability to embrace this and to relieve the misery and hardship of urban life for the majority poor in cities was the major factor in growth of Christianity. Being a persistent, pervasive and reflection of Christ so that the community is seen as God's.
Even as we might cringe to hear that God will provide for the good and evil. Comprehensive, indiscriminate and undeserved kindness is God. Even in Jesus’ time Josephus noted - “it is surely madness to expect God to show the same treatment to the just and the unjust!” The struggle is timeless. And it sounds so good but it’s so hard.
This is where I think our translation of the gospel gets it wrong. We hear “be perfect.” And frankly that be perfect part is just not for real. That’s kind of a crappy translation. Looking back to Leviticus, we hear- be holy as I the Lord your God am holy. And I think it’s fair to say that related to being holy is being whole. The greater righteousness which embodies God’s empire imitates God in wholeness.
To be whole or holy takes active trust and obedience- walking with. It takes what only God can give- faith and the Spirit
Constant and comprehensive love even in the face of opposition is what we see of God across Scripture and then to the cross. And we are then empowered to be whole, doing love toward all, including those we call enemies.
To even begin takes constant discerning of what the kingdom looks like in each situation. But one writer notes, “no matter who we are the Jesus truth is this: Because I am made in the image of God, I am deserving of dignity and respect. Often Sunday School repetition has lessened the shocking impact of Jesus’ words for us today, nothing can lessen even for us, how very hard it is for us to love an enemy: how incredibly difficult it is to live this truth. But if we are to live as people of dignity, it is a skill we have to learn.”
And here is where there is another challenge. We often lift up great models of the faith- Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmond Tutu, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and others. Like they are icons or super Christians. And they are almost inaccessible. Often model people of the faith are hard for us to embrace as connected to us.
So I want to share in closing two stories about everyday people in the struggle to live God’s dignity.
On the sleepover, our 12 kids got there to join about 100 kids total. We were sitting church for the opening and one of our girls turned to me and said, “Pastor, we are surrounded by a sea of whiteness. How’s this gonna be for us?” The fear of the enemy dynamic was alive for her. How will the Riveras and Figueroas, and Rosarios fit in the picture? As it turned out our 11 girls were put in a room with three girls from Bernville, a town of a few hundred that doesn’t experience our diversity. I am happy to say that in the midst of concern, the gospel was proclaimed in how everyone came together. Even if it centered around Justin Bieber as much as Jesus. That’s a story that has to continue to be lived to become working reality.
Here’s the second story, of love and dignity when it has not been reality. Philip Yancy’s book Rumours of Another World tells of South Africa, at a Truth and Reconciliation hearing after the end of apartheid. Where people tried to reconcile the injustices.
“A policeman recounted how he and other officers, had shot at point blank range an 18 year old boy, just because he was black and then burned the body to destroy the evidence. Eight years later, the men returned to the boy’s home and forced his mother to watch as they bound her husband, poured gas over him and set him on fire. The room grew quieter and quieter. And then the judge turned to the woman and asked: ’what do you want from him?’
She replied, ‘I want him to go to the place my husband was burned, and gather up the dust there so that I can give him a decent burial.’
‘He took all my family away from me, but I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to my home and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him. And I would like him to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him too. I would like to embrace him so he can know forgiveness is real.”
Imagine the power of that wholeness.
I cannot imagine the cost to her, what her neighbors thought of her. But what dignity, healing and hope she brought through her love for her enemy, not just to herself, and not just for him, but for all who hear the story. Including us.
We don’t love our neighbors because they deserve it. We love them because God says they are our sisters, and our brothers, and because God, while we were yet sinners, loved us first.”
God calls us into this holiness, this wholeness, this love. It is hard work. But if we want to live with dignity, it is the only thing to do.