Get Yourself a Bigger World

A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Sean Lanigan on the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany.

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We have heard some tough words today. Turn the other cheek; go the extra mile; love your enemy; pray for those who persecute you. These challenging words from Jesus make Christianity out to be something of a hero’s journey. They make Christianity out to be something accessible only to those with incredibly pure hearts, only to those who are courageous enough to accept the costliness of following Jesus…the costliness of discipleship.

Sometimes, Christianity can begin to feel like a bit too heroic of a pursuit, can’t it? And when this happens, many of us ordinary Christians tend to shut down. It’s just too much. It’s just too hard. We can’t possibly do all of the things Jesus commands. We can’t possibly live this sacrificially! We’re only human for God’s sake!

And so we decide that what Jesus asks of us is super-human, which must mean that it’s someone else’s job. We’ll just keep on being regular, everyday Christians who try to love people as best we can. The heroic stuff just can’t possibly be meant for us.

I often feel this quite acutely myself. I often try to reconcile myself to being a good-enough Christian. I feel twinges of embarrassment about how often I consent to the status quo, how often I take the easier path… and yet I keep on doing it! I feel a yearning for something more, but I’m not always sure how to jump out of my comfort zone and into the radical kind of love that Jesus shows to be the way to life and life abundant.

I’m guessing some of you might be yearning for something more, too. Some of you might have hoped that this journey with God would be more liberating, more mystical, more healing. Just more of something!

But if you’re like me, you get tired of working so hard at life. We have so much to do already – how can we add more? So many of us are trying so very hard to do so much good in the world. And now, according to today’s Gospel text, we’re supposed to love people who hate us. We’re being asked to do more. Really??? How could Jesus place such a burden on people who are already trying so hard. Why does Jesus always seem to expect more? Is it ever possible to do enough?

All of these questions – questions I often ask of myself – are questions that lead me to wonder: what if…what if Jesus calls us to love our enemies not because it will be good for our enemies and not even because it will be good for the moral fabric of the universe. What if…what if Jesus calls us to love our enemies precisely because it will be very, very good for us…for us. And not good in a “bitter medicine” kind of way, but good in a genuinely redemptive, joyful way… a way that expands us for more love and more life? Can you imagine such a thing to be possible? Can you imagine that these difficult commandments might somehow be the very portals to our liberation?

Now, perhaps you might not yet have eyes to see and ears to hear the good news that is inherent in the difficult, costly love that Jesus prescribes for us. But just think for a minute about how dry and dull your soul might be feeling lately. Just think about all the political angst you’re consuming…. creating a toxic brew that roils through your innards, day and night. It isn’t healthy. We can’t live like this for the long-term. We just aren’t going to be effective agents of God’s love and justice, when we’re this tired and anxious and depressed.

And here’s the thing: so much of the pain that many of us are feeling, I think… so much of this pain is caused by the fact that our worlds are simply too small. Our worlds are just far, far too small… far too limited and far too limiting.

And as a result of the small worlds that most of us inhabit, we have no idea how to really BE the resistance. We have no idea because we’re not in deep relationship with activists who are people of color or who identify as LGBTQ. We’re not in relationship with the sorts people who’ve been doing resistance work since long before the recent raising of many of our consciences.

In addition, those of us who feel called to resistance also have little capacity to even begin to understand those who do not share our political and moral convictions. We easily cast our opponents as enemies, thereby absolving ourselves of the effort required to try to imagine them as rational actors with human hearts. We choose to call them incomprehensible and even demonic, pushing our worlds further and further apart. We often imagine those who believe differently than us to be so deeply contaminated that we dare not even go near them. And relationship, thereby, becomes impossible.

In such small worlds, then, we are consigned to live in fear. Because the only way of relating to unlovable enemies is to fight them. And we really don’t want to fight. But we really do want things to change. We believe that things must change.

So what is the Biblical solution? What is the Biblical way out of our fear and into the new life that God intends for us? What is the Biblical way out of an emerging political culture that scapegoats immigrants, refugees, people of color, and LGBTQ people for all of our nation’s problems?

The Biblical solution, of course, is enemy-love. But enemy-love is never an immediate, one-step process. It’s not something that most of us can jump right into. Most of us need to take some preparatory steps to even get close to the edges of enemy-love.

So let’s explore for a moment how to find our way our way toward the liberating force of enemy-love. I would suggest, as does our Gospel text, that moving toward enemy-love requires us to begin to habituate ourselves to a range of counter-cultural behaviors. And perhaps the most counter-cultural of these behaviors is the practice of relationship.

Now relationship might not strike you as particularly countercultural, at first. But what if I were to ask you to get up from you pew, to find someone you don’t know very well, and to share something personal about yourself? I’m guessing some of you would try it…reluctantly. But some of you wouldn’t.

You’d sit in your pew and wonder why St. Peter’s hired such an irritating young priest. You might even feel intensely uncomfortable. You’d rather talk to people you already know, after the service. It’s just not polite to get too personal too quickly. Why doesn’t Sean know that by now???

Yet, today’s Gospel asks: “If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?” And: “If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have?”

Indeed: what reward is there for staying in our small worlds? Have our small worlds liberated us yet? If not, we have to make our worlds bigger. And the best place and time to start is always right here and right now.

So I’m going to ask you, in just a moment, to get up, to find someone you don’t know very well, and to tell them about something or someone you love. You can opt out. You always have that freedom. And yet, where else do you have the opportunity to be uncomfortable with a whole bunch of relatively nice people all at the very same time. So let’s laugh at ourselves a little and give it a try. Would everyone who is able please stand and find a conversation partner?


It wasn’t so bad, now was it? Doesn’t your world feel just a little bigger now? Now here’s the thing. You can do this every day. You can introduce yourself to strangers. You can ask them about themselves. Most people LOVE talking about themselves and about what matters to them. And you can be the caring, loving, curious presence that you long for in the world.

And each time you do this, your world gets a little bit bigger. I venture it will feel quite good. And before you know it, you’ll be on your way toward relationship with people who are very different from you…maybe even with your enemies. You’ll get bolder and more courageous. And bold, courageous people are exactly what the world needs now. We need people who don’t want to be afraid anymore. We need people who know that the way to new life is to live in a much bigger world, a world filled with all kinds of glorious difference and diversity, a world where we know our enemies rather than avoid them.

God wants to free us from our fear. God wants to free us from our division. And God sent us each other so that we could begin practicing right here. It all begins by choosing a bigger world and by choosing one another. May it be so.

Amen.

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The Rev. Sean Lanigan

The Rev. Sean Lanigan is the Associate Rector of St. Peter's Church.

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