Sunday, October 4, 2015

Investing in Mercy by Loving Our Enemies: A Homily for the 18th Sunday After Pentecost and the Second Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

2 Cor. 9:6-11
               Luke 6:31-36               
               It is true in everything we do:  the more we put into something, the more we get out of it.  No matter what we say or think, if we do not invest our time, energy, and attention in something, it is not very important to us and we should not expect much from it in return.  Many people have learned that lesson the hard way in marriage, family, work, and school. Above all, we need to ask ourselves if we are really investing ourselves in the life of Christ. How we treat our enemies is a good test of whether we are truly doing so. 
            St. Paul made precisely this point to the Corinthians:  “He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”  Gardeners who plant only a few seeds cannot expect much of a crop, while those who plant more can expect a better outcome.  Likewise, we enter more fully into the life of our Lord when we bless others with the mercy that God has shown us.  That is how those who share with others “will be enriched in every way for great generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.”   Becoming a blessing to others is the way to be blessed ourselves.
            Jesus Christ gave His disciples this message in today’s gospel passage, for He called them to demonstrate the mercy of God to their neighbors, even those whom it is very hard to love.  He told them to treat everyone as they would like to be treated.  He said that they should love not only their friends, but also their enemies.  They were to do good even to those who had treated them poorly.  They were to lend to those unlikely to pay them back.  By doing so, their “reward will be great” and they “will be sons of the Most High.”  That is what it means to “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”
            With these words, the Lord calls us to enter fully into His life and thus to manifest personally the mercy that He has shown to the world.  He calls us to become like Him, to be so closely united to Him that His holy love becomes characteristic of who we are, even as we relate to those we do not like and who do not like us.    That is an important dimension of what it means to become His sons and daughters, to be “partakers of the divine nature” by grace.
            As with so many of Christ’s hard teachings, we may find it impossible to believe that we could ever fulfill these commandments.  If you are like me, you fall into anger and judgment toward others very easily and find it more appealing to hold grudges than to forget past wrongs. We may say that this is simply human nature and excuse ourselves, but the Lord reminds us that this is simply the way of sin.  Even terrorists and gangsters are good to those who are good to them.  We must not rest content with being like them.
            It may seem normal and natural to us in our world of corruption to hate our enemies, but that is not the life for which we were created in the image and likeness of God.  Christ is the Second Adam Who restores our fallen humanity, and He expects and enables us to live in a way that is different from business as usual. But if we are to grow in obedience to Him, we must not view His teaching as simply another set of rules to follow according to our own ability.  The Savior called His followers to be more righteous than those who thought of God’s commandments as a long list of requirements that could be satisfied by going through the motions.  He reinterpreted the Old Testament laws in ways that called for a transformation of our hearts and souls as we become more like Him.  That is a fulfillment so profound that no one can achieve it as some kind of accomplishment gained merely through will power.  
            If the goal is truly to become like God, truly to share in the divine life, love, and holiness that have conquered sin and death, it should be clear that we will not reach it simply by trying really hard. To become the sons and daughters of the Most High, we must be born again for the life of the Kingdom. We must be empowered for a new life beyond our ability by the presence of the Holy Spirit.  We must put on Christ and participate to the depths of our being in a blessing and healing well beyond our own ability. That blessing is always God’s gracious gift, never a reward that we have deserved.
            The good news is that members of Christ’s Body, the Church, already share in His life and have the spiritual strength to hear and obey His commandments.  Here is where we must remember St. Paul’s words on the importance of sowing bountifully, of investing our lives deeply in practices that open us to participate more fully in blessedness. If we have not done so, then it is no wonder that we so often fall short of loving our enemies, giving to those who cannot pay us back, and treating everyone as we ourselves would like to be treated. Our failure and frustrations are reminders that we have not sowed bountifully, that we have not invested ourselves diligently in the practices of mercy and forgiveness, and that we have not produced much fruit for the Kingdom as a result.  We have not been good stewards of the spiritual strength and power He has given us.   
            If that is where we are today, then we must use our weakness for our salvation, humbling acknowledging that we are in constant need of the mercy and grace that we so often refuse to show others.  We have wanted blessings for ourselves that we will not share with our neighbors.  We have sown sparingly and greatly limited our own participation in the healing and blessing of Jesus Christ.  Of course, we can never earn His grace, but we can put ourselves in the place where we are open to receive and participate in His mercy, where we will be “enriched in every way for great generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.”  In other words, we can do what we have the spiritual strength to do in helping, forgiving, and otherwise being reconciled with our enemies.  We must sow as bountifully as we can.  When we fall short, we must ask for God’s forgiveness as we rise up again to do what we can to bless those we find it hard to love.  In other words, we must continue the journey in humility, investing ourselves in the ways of the Kingdom as we plead for greater strength to become more beautiful icons of God’s mercy for the world.     
            Through this process, we will be blessed as we become blessings to others.  If we extend to our neighbors the same mercy that we humbly ask of God, we can trust that we are becoming more faithful sons and daughters “of the Most High; for He is kind to the ungrateful and selfish.”  Yes, that includes sinners like me and you who struggle, often unsuccessfully, to “be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”  What does it mean to invest ourselves in the life of Christ?  It means to keep up the struggle to love, forgive, and serve each day, and never to give up.   


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