Love Your Enemies, Change the World: A sermon celebrating the life of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This sermon, delivered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin on January 15, 2017 began with an audio excerpt from The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s sermon “Loving Your Enemies.”  You can find that audio excerpt here.

The Gospel assigned for the Celebration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, and referenced in this sermon, can be found here.



“Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. That’s why Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption. You just keep loving people and keep loving them, even though they’re mistreating you. Here’s the person who is a neighbor, and this person is doing something wrong to you and all of that. Just keep being friendly to that person. Keep loving them. Don’t do anything to embarrass them.   Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with bitterness because they’re mad because you love them like that. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.”

Excerpt from “Loving Your Enemies,” The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, a Sermon Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church on November 17, 1957

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Please be seated.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke those words in a sermon that was delivered at the Dexter Ave., Baptist Church on November 17, 1957, almost 60 years ago. Just eight years later in 1965 in the middle of the civil rights movement, as this nation grappled with his character and nature, we watched in horror, the world watched in horror, as a group of peaceful protesters attempting to march to Selma were set upon by dogs and billy clubs on the Edmund Pettis Bridge. Dr. Martin Luther King and the movement that focused around him, the movement in the center of which he stood, brought this nation to its senses and a lot has changed since that time. Tomorrow all across this country, in state houses all over this land, here in Madison, people will gather to celebrate the witness, and the life, and ministry of Dr. King, and his achievements, and the progress that we have made.

But even as songs are sung, and prayers are prayed, and speeches are spoken tomorrow, we all have some concern and perhaps even some fear in the back of our minds. We have come a long way but we had not yet reached the finish line. We have seen in this nation that racism still exists, that inequality still exists; that people are oppressed, and held back and held down, because of the color of their skin, the faith that they hold, the people that they love. So we know that there is still work to be done.

Dr. King in his sermon tells us to love our enemies and he is in that moment harkening back to the gospel reading that we just heard, The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke. And so in this increasingly secular age we might find some comfort and maybe even some humor in the fact that the entire nation will take the day off tomorrow to celebrate a preacher who is telling the story of God’s saving grace and love for this world.

But even in the midst of that solace, and comfort, and or humor, our concern persists for all the work that has been done, for all the time that has past, for all the people who have gone before us pressing this fight.

How can we pick up that agenda and carry it forward.

Make no mistake it is ours to forward. We stand in this place, we kneel in this place, and we proclaim that we are all one; children created at the hand of the same loving God. And we proclaim that nothing we can do can ever separate us from that love. Nothing that separates us by birth, faith, loves, tradition, country of origin, color of skin, can ever separate us from God’s love and should never separate us one from another. We are one! We proclaim that here. This is our call and our vocation, the narrative that lies at the core of who we are, and we should be proclaiming that truth and telling that narrative in every place where two or three are gathered. It is our vocation and our calling to work to realize the vision, the dream that God holds for all creation, the vision and the dream that Jesus made manifest in this world, the vision and the dream that Dr. Martin Luther King worked so hard to realize.

How can we do that? How can we, in this time that seems to be so polarized, where our public discourse is so extreme and angry, how can we make a difference? How can we move the needle? How can we bring people together again?

Jesus tells us to love our enemies, to be good to those who hate us, to pray for those who abuse us. He said this pretty early in his ministry and I don’t know that these are the commandments that I would have led with in trying to gather a following or to win over people’s hearts and minds. These are perhaps some of the hardest things that Jesus says to us. But then as we watch and listen to his story he lives them out.

I’m going to conflate the words for forgiveness or forgive and love here. I think that we might argue a little bit about the chicken and the egg. Do we have to love someone before we can forgive them or do we have to forgive someone before we can love them. I think that probably Jesus, and even Dr. King, would argue with us that these two behaviors, these two ways of being, are one and the same. You can’t have one without the other. And so I am confident in this conflation this morning.

Jesus hangs on a cross. He allows us to betray him to humiliate and torture him. And then to hang him on a tree and watch him die. He does all of this so that we know without a doubt when he comes back and continues to love us, despite the very worst that is within us, that there is truly, as Paul will say later, nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Having experienced us at our very worst we are left with no, no fantasies to harbor that we somehow live outside of the grace and light of God’s love.

Charles Hefling, biblical scholar and theologian, in an article entitled Why the Cross, published in the Christian Century in March of 2013, says this about forgiveness, about what Jesus does on the cross, and in his resurrection:

“Forgiveness would mean the remission or cancellation or cessation of (deserved) punishment. It comes down to taking away the taking away.

Certainly Jesus had every right, in our anthropomorphized sense of God’s justice, to insist that those who had abused him, and abandoned him, and murdered him be punished. And certainly people who were on the Edmund Pettis Bridge had the right to insist that those who had so injured them punished and held to account. But Hefling goes on to tell us:

“If you choose to retaliate, you perpetuate the evil by causing a new injury. The choice may be wholly justifiable, but it is no less injurious for that.   If instead you choose to hold a grudge, to brood on your injury and cultivate your dudgeon, you will still perpetuate the evil, internally, by diminishing yourself, souring your character and becoming your own victim as well as mine.”

Hefling seems to be telling us that it is in our best interest it’s a rather pragmatic step to forgive and to love our enemies because to failed to forgive and love them we will be somehow damaging ourselves.

But even here that understanding of forgiveness and love sell short the way that Jesus loved us and the way that Dr. Martin Luther King and the people who walked on that bridge that day prosecuted their movement.

Hefling tells us:

“On the other hand, if you choose to forgive, you are choosing to absorb the infection, as it were; to contain its self-diffusion, to forgo the gratifications of revenge, resentment, self-vindication and righteous indignation.”

You are choosing to absorb the infection, to contain its self diffusion, to end the cycle of retributive violence that holds us thrall. To end the violence that perpetuates itself, begetting violence, violence begetting hatred, hatred feeding violence.

What Jesus did on the cross some two thousand years ago changed the world and offered us a different way to be, a different way to live in community with one another. And what The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Rev. John Lewis and the people who marched on their way to Selma and marched in countless other cities changed this country. And in fact, changed the world.

Loving our enemies, loving our neighbors as ourselves has that potential change to world. We are not just called to love the people who are lovable, the people who look like us, dress like us, believe like us, and love like us. We are called to love everyone. And that includes the people who we find challenging and difficult. It includes the people who disagree with us, and the people with whom we disagree. Loving those people means listening with open ears and open hearts. Listening not to respond but to learn, to understand.

Jesus speaks to us through Luke’s gospel some 2000 years ago and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King speaks to us from 60 years ago in a Baptist Church, and tomorrow he will sing and pray and give teaches all of which should be calling us love, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves and even, even in this time of the fear and division, to love our enemies.