February 16, 2020

Luke 6:27-38 and Genesis 45:3-11, 15

It was August of 2000 in Lake County, South Dakota. St. Peter Lutheran Church, a beautiful little fieldstone church out in the countryside, was ransacked by vandals. They broke windows, smashed lights, and flipped over the baptismal font. They slashed the large “Jesus the Good Shepherd” painting at the front of the sanctuary. They spray-painted obscenities on the sanctuary walls and carved four letter words into the woodwork. In the kitchen they broke dishes and threw many other things all around.

Can you imagine walking in on such a scene? What kind of a person would do such a thing? Just think about the shock and anger that congregation must have felt!

Worship services were held outdoors the following Sunday. Susan Janssen, the Council Vice President recalls,

“There were many tears. Everyone was so devastated and shocked that someone could do this to a church. No one could believe how terrible it was.”[i]

It took a while, but the police arrested two local boys, ages 16 and 19, who confessed to the crime. When the boys were let out of jail, they came to church and publicly apologized in front of the whole congregation for what they had done. After the older boy had spoken and as he was returning to his seat, one of the members got out of his pew, walked up to him and said, “I forgive you,” and gave him a hug. Others reached out in love and care, shaking hands with the boys, telling them they forgave them and also letting them know that God forgives them.

The boys and their families were amazed by this gracious reception. It was not what they had expected. The father of one of the boys said,

“We had been separated from organized religion since our oldest daughter died of cancer. We rejected the whole religion thing. This event has pulled us back into the church.”

In responding to these boys with grace, the people of St. Peter embodied what Jesus spoke of in the Sermon on the Plain that is our gospel lesson for today.

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you… Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.”

Luke 6:27-28 & 36-38

As we hear these words of Jesus, these commands of Jesus, they sure sound hard to do. Yet, as we see the people of St. Peter Lutheran Church faithfully respond, we get a sense of why Jesus commands his people to love like this. When we treat one another in love and care, we reflect the God who loves and cares for us.

We, who are sinners, have been forgiven by God. We who hurt one another, are loved by God. We who reject God and disobey God, are redeemed by the saving work of his son, Jesus, on the cross. Even with all our faults, we are precious in God’s sight. No one is expendable.  Each person is a beloved child of God.

The Good Shepherd picture that was slashed by those boys reminds us of our Good Shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to search for the one who is lost. When he finds it, he scoops it up and lovingly carries it home.

The behaviors and attitudes that Jesus commands his followers to live by in the Sermon on the Plain reveal the character of God and the vision God has for his people. When we love God and love one another, we experience an inbreaking of the Kingdom of God right here in our midst.

These boys, who did such damage, got an experience of God’s love as the people of St. Peter reached out to them in love and forgiveness and grace. And it turned their lives around.

Pastor Terry Knudson drew the connection between this event at St. Peter and the story of Joseph in Genesis,

“The vandalism was one of our darkest moments,” he said, yet “God can find a way to bring good from evil.”

As we think about that story of Joseph, we encounter a broken family. Joseph was Jacob’s, favorite son. It’s hard when parents play favorites. One of the ways the favoritism showed itself in this family was in the gift of a special tunic, that we have come to know as “the coat of many colors.” Joseph also had big dreams and a big head. He dreamed of having all his brothers bow down to him, and he was foolish enough to tell them of this dream.

So, they did something to put him in his place, something evil. They sold their brother into slavery. Then they lied to their father saying Joseph had been killed by an animal. They spread animal blood on that coat of many colors as “proof” of Joseph’s untimely demise.

In Egypt, Joseph had it tough. He was a slave and he was imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. But God was with him through it all and God used the evil that had been done to Joseph for good. Joseph’s God-given ability to interpret dreams was brought to the attention of Pharaoh. When Joseph was able to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams to predict a seven-year famine, Pharaoh put Joseph in charge of preparing for that famine. When the famine hit, Egypt was prepared with reserve supplies.

Word made it to Joseph’s family that there was food in Egypt. Joseph’s brothers were sent on a mission to get what provisions they could for the family. As the sons of Jacob arrive in Egypt, Joseph recognized his brothers, though they didn’t recognize him.

He tested them. He sets up a situation where Benjamin, the youngest and new favorite son of Jacob, is framed for having stolen something from the palace that he didn’t take. Joseph tells the brothers Benjamin will have to stay behind. Judah, one of the older brothers, realizes how hard this will be on their father. He begs Joseph to keep him instead of Benjamin, because he knew it would break his father’s heart to lose Benjamin. In that act of selfless love for their father, Joseph could see that his brothers had changed.

That brings us to the scene that is described in today’s lesson. Joseph reveals himself to his brothers saying,

“I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.”

Genesis 45:4b-5

And later Joseph says to his brothers,

“Though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”

Genesis 50:20a

This story of Joseph is such a good illustration of what can happen when people follow Jesus’ commands to love and forgive. People’s lives, that are broken in many ways, can be healed. Families, who are torn apart, can be brought back together. Lives can be saved, as people drop their grudges and live in love and care for one another.

So, what does it look like for you and me to abide by what Jesus preached in his Sermon on the Plain? Who do we need to ask forgiveness for wrongs we have done to them? How might we do that? Who do we need to forgive?

Forgiveness doesn’t come easy, especially where there is deep hurt. But hanging on to that hurt only makes it fester. Asking God to work through us, to bring us to forgiveness, is freeing for those who need to forgive as well as those who need to be forgiven.

How do you do that? How do forgive when you have been deeply hurt? Jesus gives us the way. He says,

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

Luke 6:27 – 28

These are specific actions we can take to prepare our hearts to forgive. Loving our enemies means treating them in loving ways. It means having empathy for the hurt that they are experiencing. It means recognizing the common humanity that we share. Praying for them is one of the most powerful ways we can change our own hearts.

If we do good for those who do us harm and pray for those who seek to hurt us, it changes something in us and ultimately it can change them. It helps us reach out to them to melt the hurt and pain that prompted them to act as they did. When a person is treated with love and respect, God can bring about amazing transformation.

A word of warning here. These words of Jesus, commanding us to love our enemies and pray for those who abuse us, have sometimes been interpreted to mean that people should stay in abusive relationships. That is not what God wants for anyone. Loving relationships don’t involve living with ongoing physical or emotional abuse. Jesus’ command to love and forgive doesn’t require putting yourself in danger. So, if that is your situation, seek help and safety. Don’t allow yourself to continue being hurt or victimized. That does not do you or your abuser any good, and that is not what God wants for his peoples.

With that caveat, as we hear once again the story of Joseph and his family, can we imagine offering forgiveness to family members who have hurt us? As we hear the words of Jesus, commanding us to love our enemies… pray for those who persecute us…and forgiveas our heavenly father has forgiven, can we imagine ourselves living out these commands by being more loving and forgiving? Might praying for our enemies, change our hearts as well as theirs?

We heard the story of the gracious way that the people of St. Peter Lutheran Church responded to the hatred inflicted on them. Can we imagine ourselves having the faith to respond with grace to those who are hurting and acting out in hurtful ways?

That takes us back to where we began. The Church Treasurer of St. Peter Lutheran, Adele Kipp, said,

“We know the pain the boys and their families are feeling. We felt it was our responsibility not only to forgive them, but also to help them put their lives back together. Absolution is what churches are for.”

Wise words from a woman who has taken Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain to heart and incorporated it into her life.

May God give us the faith to love as we’ve been loved by our Heavenly Father. May God give us the courage to forgive as we’ve been forgiven through Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins. May God work through us to bring his Kingdom into being here and now making us instruments of His peace. Amen!

[i] Quotes and details about the vandalism of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church came from “Forgiveness and Reconciliation at Last!” by Arley K. Fadness.