The Third Way of Love (Sermon)

This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning, the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany. The gospel reading was Luke 6:27-38.

There is a third way. There is always a third way. I believe that. Now, I don’t always succeed in acting on that. I don’t even always remember that I believe it. But in those times when I do, when I look for the third way, and even take the third way, in those times, I am amazed at what God provides.

What do I mean by a third way? I mean a third way to respond to stress.

Stress is a powerful thing. Have any of you ever experienced stress? Of course you have. Brain scientists tell us that when we experience stress, our heart rate speeds up, our pupils dilate, adrenaline and cortisol are released, and lots of other things happen that prepare us to do one of two things, to act in one of two ways: fight or flee. It’s been called the fight or flight response. It’s more complicated than that of course, but this is good enough for the purposes of this sermon. Now, this response was very useful to our distant ancestors. Thanks to this response, they were able to survive attacks from sabretooth tigers and grizzly bears. But the trouble is, a lot of the stressors we face today don’t come from wild animals. Yet our physical response is the same. Our brains are still wired to do this, even if the stress we experience is caused by a deadline at work, or an insensitive driver, or a family argument, or a political post on Facebook. We still have that fight or flight response.

For instance, some “fight” responses are the feeling of road rage, or making nasty comments on a Facebook post. Or saying, “If a bully hits you, hit back harder.” And some “flight” responses are numbing ourselves with substance abuse, or too much television. Or saying, “I don’t want to say anything at all, because I don’t want to make waves.” In the stressful situations we find ourselves in today, neither fight nor flight are really helpful responses.

But the good news is that there is actually a third way. A third way that Jesus talks about in today’s gospel. Jesus says, “Love your enemies.”

Love your enemies. That’s the third way. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Turn the other cheek. Give to everyone who begs from you.

And Jesus says that this Third Way is not just possible, in fact it’s our job to do it. Jesus tells us, “You are my disciples, and I call you to a higher standard. After all, do you think you deserve credit for loving people who love you? For doing good to those who do good to you? For giving to people who will repay you? Those things are nothing special,” he says. “They’re just good business. But if you want to follow me, take the Third Way.”

Let me show you an example of the Third Way. I’ve shared this example before, but it’s a good one and worth repeating. 

It’s in Matthew’s version of this passage. In Matthew, Jesus says, “If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other as well.” That detail is actually really important. In the days of the Roman Empire, the left hand was considered unclean. The left hand was used for toilet functions, and nothing else. You used your right hand for everything else. Including if you were going to slap someone. So if I’m going to slap someone on the right cheek, using my right hand, I have to do it like this, back-handed. And a back-handed slap is not intended to harm, but rather to humiliate. Romans would backhand slaves and Jews and children and others they thought were beneath them. If they wanted to hit an equal, they would hit you on your left cheek. So Jesus said, if someone backhand slaps you, offer him the other cheek. Don’t fight back. Don’t run away. But stand there and say, “If you want to hit me, hit me as an equal.” It’s actually a way of showing love, of showing that you view the person as worthy of respect, and that you demand respect in return.

This is the Third Way. Not fight. Not flight. But a creative way of standing up in the face of stress. In the twentieth century, several people who changed the world did so by precisely using this third way. Not fight. Not flight. But creative ways to stand up to oppression. People like Mohandas Gandhi. And Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. People like Rosa Parks. And Nelson Mandela. Each of them was caught in a system that seemed to give them no way out. A system that needed to be changed. And they changed that system. They changed the world, by using the Third Way. Not fight. Not flight. But something different. Love.

We are not all called to change the world as these saints did. But we are all called to live this out in our own lives. Love your enemies, Jesus said. But how can I love someone who hates me? How can I forgive someone who has done something terrible? And why? Why would I ever do something like that?

The why is the easier part. Why? Because we are God’s people, and Jesus calls us a higher standard of ethics, a standard that can almost seem impossible.

Why? Also because it’s exactly what Christ has done for us. Jesus is the Third Way. Jesus is God’s Third Way. God made us, and we sinned. We rebelled against God. If God had acted on a fight response, we would have been wiped out ages ago. If God had acted on a flight response, God would have abandoned us and maybe tried again on some other planet. But God found a Third Way. To come to earth as a human being. To become one of us. To die for us. And to be raised from the dead for us. God did not destroy us. God did not abandon us. God redeemed us. Through Christ. Christ is the Third Way. And because Christ has done this for us, we are called to do it for others.

That’s why. But what about how? Scripture tells us that the Spirit of Christ lives within us. And because Christ lives in us, we have the power to do this. We have the power to rise above our nature of fight vs. flight. Jesus was truly human, in fact he was the most truly human person there ever was. And so he shows us what we can be. With his Spirit within us, we can live out our calling to rise above our destructive tendencies, our base desires for revenge and for peace and quiet. We can rise above, and do the work he has called us to. The work of sharing love with everyone, even our enemies. The work of truly being who we are. Not just being nice or kind. But being alive. Being alive, and trusting that that life comes not from ourselves but from God. Truly being alive, and sharing that life with everyone around us. Everyone, even those who hate us. It’s not easy. But it’s possible. And it’s what Jesus wants for us. And it’s what it means to truly live the life we’ve been given.

I believe that there is a Third Way in every stressful situation we face, even the mundane ones. There is a Third Way to get through any stress related to COVID. We don’t need to fight one another, and we don’t need to just hide ourselves away. There is a Third Way to live.

There is a Third Way to get through any stress related to our families. We don’t need to fight, and we don’t need to just give in to get along. There is a Third Way to live.

There is a Third Way to get through any stress related to our finances. We don’t need to resort to violence or theft, and we don’t need to give up and die in poverty. There is a Third Way to live.

Now I don’t know what the Third Way is all the time. But I am convinced that it always has something to do with love. And I am convinced that it has something to do with putting our trust in God, and not in our own wisdom. And I am convinced that it has something to do with working with each other, and that it’s something that takes practice. With God, with each other, with love, and with practice, we can learn to turn from the automatic fight or flight reflex, and learn to live the Third Way. The Way of Life. The Way of Love.

And that’s exactly what I am offering to practice with you throughout Lent this year. Our Lenten program that starts in two weeks is called “The Way of Love,” and it’s a chance for all of us to explore seven aspects of this third way that Jesus calls us to. Seven practices that will build our strength and our endurance and our faith to find and act on the Third Way in our lives, and train us to be the people God wants us to be.

Pick up one of these booklets in the narthex today, and start reading it on March 6, the First Sunday in Lent. Or if you’re watching from home, download it in the email I sent a few days ago. And watch the videos I record for this program, the first of which will be available on March 6, the First Sunday in Lent. Together we will learn and practice these seven things: Turn, Pray, Learn, Bless, Rest, Worship, and Go. Together we will learn more fully how to be truly human, how to be truly alive. Together we will learn the Third Way of God.

There is a Third Way. It’s the way of love. The way of true and abundant life. The life God wants for us. The life God gives us. Let’s live that life together.

Image by Barbara Bonanno from Pixabay

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