Bless Others, Change Yourself
The Rev. Canon Frank Logue gave the following sermon at
Christ Church, Frederica on St. Simons Island, Georgia on November 7, 2010
Bless Others, Change Yourself
As a student, we are taught that the main thing you should never do is to copy someone else’s work. Listen up those of you who are still in school of any kind. The quickest way to get yourself into deep trouble is to steal someone’s way of expressing an idea without giving them credit for it. Copy the encyclopedia article into your term paper and you will find yourself in a heap of trouble. It’s that simple.
Today is All Saints Sunday. We can expect our scripture lessons to teach us a more saintly paths for our lives. So, it is a little embarrassing to have a Gospel reading in which the pattern for all the saints, Jesus, preaches a very unoriginal idea and gives no credit for it anywhere. Is it possible for our Lord to plagiarize? Perhaps not. But we get today The Golden Rule. Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It was such an unoriginal thought Jesus might not have known whom to quote.
The first one Jesus could have copied from was the famous Jewish teacher Hillel. Fifty years before Jesus was born, Hillel said, “Do not do to others what you would not like others to do to you.” Of course, Jesus made it sound more positive, but the idea is the same.
But Hillel was not exactly original, almost 300 years earlier (338 BC), the Greek Isocrates wrote, “Act toward others as you desire them to act toward you.”
But he might have just been changing a few words around on Aristotle who sat down in 385 BC to pen, “We should conduct ourselves toward others as we would have them act toward us.”
But Aristotle was just building on the fifth century BC writings of Thales who said, “Avoid doing what you would blame others for doing.”
It’s not that the idea is a Greek one, Confucious wrote around 500 BC to say that you should, “Do unto another what you would have him do unto you, and do not do unto another what you would not have him do unto you.” Confucious added, “Thou needest this law alone. It is the foundation of all the rest.”
But Confucious wrote that 150 years after Pittacus said, “Do not to your neighbor what you would take ill from him.”
And Confucious was a full 500 years after the Brahman work the Mahabharata which said, “This is the sum of duty: Do naught unto others which would cause you pain done unto you.”
You get the idea. This notion found in The Golden Rule, as it came to be called in the 1700s, is found in writings of cultures all around the world through the millennia. What a nice, neat, safe and easy notion. The idea that we should do to others, as we would have them do to us is hard wired into the world we live in. Whether they want to admit it or not, everyone who is connected to reality knows this. Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you is the way the world was created to be.
OK, Jesus was not exactly being original. However, Jesus does not just drop the line and then go on. Jesus uses the Golden Rule as part of a bigger point. The Golden Rule is the pivot point in what Jesus is teaching us today. Jesus builds toward The Golden Rule and then away from The Golden Rule to expand the message. The effect is quite different.
Jesus commands us to do four things in the first two verses toward the end of our reading. He says, we are to love, do good, bless, and pray. That sounds great. But who are we doing all these good things for? The answer is very Christ like. Jesus says we are to love, do good, bless, and pray for the ones who hate us. Specifically, Jesus says (1) love your enemies, (2) do good to those who hate you, (3) bless those who curse you, and (4) pray for those who abuse you. By the time he gets around to saying, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” the idea doesn’t sound safe, or easy anymore. Jesus is turning The Golden Rule inside out. You see, The Golden Rule is basically self-centered. I will do to you what I want done to me is a reciprocal deal. It could be seen as an I’ll scratch your back in hopes that you will scratch mine kind of arrangement.
But Jesus is not looking for a pay-off. It’s not I’ll do this in hopes that you will too. We can see that from the very beginning of the reading, Jesus commands his followers “Love your enemies” using the Greek verb “agape.” The Gospel writer Luke had his choice of three Greek words to express the emotion “love.” Each of the three words would be translated as “love” in English, but they have different shades of meaning. Luke could have used philos, meaning warm affection or brotherly love. That’s where we get the word Philadelphia. Philadelphia is the city of brotherly love. Luke could have used eros, meaning passionate devotion. That’s where we get the word erotic. But Luke knew the type of love that Jesus showed to his enemies and he used agape to express it. Agape is Greek for a gracious, outgoing, active interest that goes well beyond what we often refer to as love.
Agape is self giving love that looks for no return on investment. But don’t trust me and my Greek dictionary on this, Jesus says it himself. Jesus says, “love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” We do not do all these good things so that life will go well for us. We do not do unto others as we would have them do unto us just so that others will, in fact, play fair. We are to love and do good knowing full well that other people can and probably will disappoint us. The others we are doing unto will be among those who are hating us, cursing us, and abusing us. We are to love and do good because that is the way Children of God act.
Jesus made it clear where he stood on this issue. Jesus did not just stand up and preach this message. Jesus lived the message. Jesus did love his enemies. Jesus loved the scribes and Pharisees who spoke out against him. Jesus loved Pilate who sentenced him to death. And Luke tells us that as Jesus was dying on the cross he looked out on those who were killing him and the ones who came out to mock him as he died and prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
That was agape to Jesus—self-giving love that did not stop giving even when it became clear that the object of that love would not respond. Jesus treated others as he wanted to be treated well after there was a possible pay-off for him. In dying, Jesus showed how far he was willing to go to show his agape love for all of us.
That Jesus who forgave those who hated him asks us to do the same. If we choose this path, we’ll still have enemies. People will still hate us. People will still curse us and abuse us. Jesus is not offering a plan to get us out of abuse. Jesus is offering us a way to be more like God our creator.
But how can we really love our enemies? How could we begin to do good to those who hate us? I think the best way to start is with the blessing and praying that Jesus commands his followers to do. The movie Fiddler on the Roof has a humorous example of this. The Russian town’s venerated elder Rabbi is asked if there is a blessing which would be appropriate for the Czar. He replies, “Of course there is a blessing for the Czar…May the Lord bless and keep the Czar…far from us.”
That’s one way to approach blessing those who hate you. I was taught a different pattern for dealing with people we can’t see how to love. First, remember that God loves that person and wants what is best for them. Then begin to pray that God will bless that person and change you. Because if someone has abused you, the abuse is his or her problem, but how you deal with the abuse is your own problem. One step is to get out of the abusive situation. The next step is to begin to pray that God will bless them and then change you.
For me, this prayer can start with clenched teeth. For example, “Bless John, change me.” But making that prayer a pattern, a routine, can help. You get used to praying for God to bless them. You get accustomed to the idea that you may also be the one who needs to change. Then over time, it gets easier to pray that God really will bless the person who hates you, the person who has harmed you. That breaks the ground for God to make a real change in your heart. Whether the other person ever changes is not your problem. Your own change is more than enough to keep you busy.
Bless them; change me. Bless them; change me. It is not a reciprocal arrangement. You can’t pray this prayer just to get something out of it. You pray for the person who hates you because that is what a child of God does. It’s not a very original idea. Jesus perfected it on the cross. We can’t make people who hate us treat us well or play fair any more than Jesus could. But we can open up our own hearts to live more fully as God’s children. Jesus says that this will come as we love, do good, bless and pray especially for those we find the hardest to love.