By D Grace of God / Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany

Luke 6:27-38

[Jesus said:] “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.

I have a pop quiz for you this morning. How much money would you say Americans lost to Internet scams and online crime in 2020? Would you believe $4.2 billion? That’s billion, with a “b”! And that’s just in one year’s time. Internet scams are an increasing problem all over the world.

If I were to ask for a quick show of hands, how many of you have gotten an email or message on social media that you suspected was a scam? It’s a pretty common occurrence.

A few years ago, a man named Ben from Utah got a Facebook message from a man named Joel. Joel was from Liberia, and he was trying to run a type of scam called an “advance-fee scam.” He was trying to convince him, this stranger from Utah, that he was in line to collect a large sum of money, like an inheritance or a court settlement, but first he needed to pay a few small fees up-front in order to claim the money. If Ben would help him pay the up-front fees, Joel vowed he would split the large sum of money with him.

Ben recognized this as a scam right away, but he decided to play along just for fun. Ben has his own YouTube channel, and he thought it would be a good idea to record his interactions with Joel so he could teach his viewers how to spot Internet scams.

And this is where the story gets good. Ben decided to turn the scam around. He claimed that he ran a photography business and would pay Joel to take some photos of African sunsets. To his surprise, Joel came through with some pretty decent photos. So, Ben did a very strange thing: he bought Joel Willie, the scammer from Liberia, a new camera. He sent him the camera and asked for more photos. And the pictures Joel sent were definitely better quality this time around. Joel also sent an enthusiastic message saying that he was committing himself to their new photography partnership.

Now Ben had a situation on his hands. He had told Joel he would pay him for good photos. And Joel trusted him. So, if Ben didn’t come through, he would be guilty of running a scam himself. What should he do? Ben decided to print Joel’s photos in a small booklet and advertise it for sale on his YouTube channel. He titled the booklet after a phrase Joel used in his emails: By D Grace of God. He only charged $8 per booklet. Within a short time, he had sold $1,000 worth of booklets.

And this is where the story gets even better. Ben sent all the money to Joel on one condition: that he donate half of it to a local Liberian charity. Joel gladly did exactly that.

And this is the best part of the story. In 2018, Ben traveled to Liberia to meet his new business partner, Joel. The two men took more photos and published a second book detailing the strange and wonderful story of their business partnership. Their two books have raised $90,000. Some of the money has gone to Joel for all his hard work. But the rest has gone to do good works in Liberia. It has been used to buy food for the hungry, to purchase Christmas care packages for children, and to save a local school.

Isn’t that a great ending or maybe we can think of it as a beginning to their story? It’s a story with a happy ending for Ben, Joel, and all the people whose lives have been impacted by the charitable giving from their photo booklets. So, I think the title of their first book is so appropriate By D Grace of God, because this story didn’t have to turn out this way. It became a story of generosity, hope and new beginnings, by D Grace of God.

I want us to think about that theme today: how can the grace of God change the ending to a story? Not just your story. But the story of all those you come in contact with. How many lives could be positively impacted if we chose grace as our first response to the challenges of life? Grace unearned, unmerited love and goodwill was Jesus’ first response to all those around Him. Even if it looked like tough love sometimes. And it’s not like Jesus was surrounded by a crazed fan club all the time. He had plenty of people who wanted to trip Him up, challenge Him, humiliate Him, even kill Him. So, He understood how difficult this teaching was for us.

Listen to Jesus’ words for us today: “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Jesus isn’t calling us to an easy task!

Jesus isn’t offering a set of simple rules by which to get by or get ahead in this world, but is inviting us into a whole other world. A world that isn’t about measuring and counting and weighing and competing and judging and paying back and hating and all the rest. But, instead, it’s about love. Love for those who have loved you. Love for those who haven’t. Love even for those who have hated you.

I think we can understand all of Jesus’ teachings better when we view them as an invitation into a whole other world. Because our world is all about measuring and counting and weighing and competing and judging and paying back and hating and all the rest. And we see the results of that way of life. Jesus wants to set us free from that way of thinking, that way of living.

Many people resist following a religion because they think it’ll put too many restrictions on their life. But sometimes restrictions are a gift to us. Maybe you’ve had the experience of walking through a mega superstore and being unable to choose a brand of soap because you have too many options. Having too many options can actually short-circuit your capacity for making wise decisions. Instead, Jesus makes things simple for us. He takes away all our options. Hate, judgment, retaliation, revenge, those are no longer options for followers of Jesus Christ. Jesus leaves us with only one choice, love.

So, what would this kind of love look like in real life? And how could it change your life story? Jesus calls us to a courageous love. Jesus calls us to a generous love. Generosity in a human being is a beautiful thing to see. Sometimes it’s contagious.

Love is the engine that drives generosity. Generosity is risky. There’s no guarantee that your giving will result in any benefit to you. But Jesus didn’t give to get anything in return. He gave because His love for us compelled Him to.

The opposite is true too. Fear is the engine that drives stinginess, selfishness and greed. Chuck Collins is the great-grandson of Oscar Mayer, the German immigrant who founded a meat company worth many millions of dollars. I’ll pause a second so you can get the “Oscar Mayer Weiner” song out of your head. [“I wish I were an Oscar Mayer Weiner. That is what I truly wish to be . . .”]

Chuck was set to inherit a fortune when he became an adult, but instead, he did something that will shock many of us. He chose to give that fortune away. All of it. Collins was inspired to give away his fortune by the tenants of a mobile home park. Yes, I said a mobile home park.

The owner of the land on which the park was going to sell it. All the tenants would have to move. The only way they could keep their community was to raise $35,000 to buy the land from the current owner. Collins considered giving them the money to buy the land. But before he could do that, the tenants banded together and raised the money themselves. Those who couldn’t afford to pay anything didn’t have to worry. Their neighbors who could afford it covered the cost for them. All the tenants got to stay.

The tenants’ generosity changed the course of Chuck’s life. As he said, it made me think, I want some of what they have. What they have is a community that stands up for each other and that’s all in for each other. That’s the kind of world I want to live in. Chuck Collins says, that’s the kind of world I want to live in.

That’s the kind of world Jesus wants for us too. That’s what the kingdom of God looks like. Hate divides; generosity unifies. Hate creates division; generosity creates community. Hate oppresses; generosity overcomes. Jesus calls us to a courageous love. Jesus calls us to a generous love. And Jesus also calls us to an unconditional love.

I learned something interesting recently. Did you know that the fictional Klingon language from Star Trek has doesn’t have a word for love? Of course, the Klingons were creatures of pure logic, not emotion. So, the closest words for “love” in their language were “honor” or “unhate.”

That would be easy for us if we could define love simply as “unhating” others. But God doesn’t let us define “love.” God doesn’t even let us decide who is worthy of our love. Listen to Jesus’ words from our Bible passage today: If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because He is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

God is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. That’s the standard of love that defines a follower of Jesus Christ. It’s unconditional love that inspired Jesus to offer His life as a sacrifice for all of us, even when we didn’t deserve it. As Romans 5:8 reads, But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. So, the only option we have if we are followers of Jesus is to love others, all others, with the same unconditional, sacrificial love.

We all like stories with happy endings. But looking through the history of humanity and we see a story of hatred, violence, suffering and injustice. It didn’t begin that way. And it doesn’t have to end that way. In Jesus, God invited us into a whole new world, the kingdom of God. How do we create that kingdom here on earth? By following Jesus’ example and living with a courageous love, a generous love, and an unconditional love. In this way, we can change the ending to the story, by D Grace of God.