This sermon, offered on February 19,2017 at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church, by the Very Rev. Andy Jones, is built on the Gospel reading assigned for the seventh Sunday after Epiphany in year a of the Revised Common Lectionary.
It seems that there’s just no escaping it.
In the Gospel reading assigned for Martin Luther King on January 15th, in the middle Luke’s recounting of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says:
“I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28).
We talked about that imperative a week later in the Forum on the 22nd and you could hear it echoing through the readings again on the 29th.
It came up in our Monday night Adult Formation offering just this past week, and then today in Matthew’s account of that event Jesus says:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-44).
Love your enemies.
It just won’t go away. There is a clear imperative in the Gospel to love our neighbors; even if they don’t look, dress and smell like us; even if they don’t believe and worship like we do; even if they don’t love like us. We are called to love.
That’s a pretty tall task in and of itself, but it’s not enough.
No matter how much we might want to ignore or deny it there is also a clear imperative in the Gospel to love our enemies; the people around whom we feel unsure or unsafe; the people whose beliefs, actions, or policies threaten us and those we love; the people who threaten our own beliefs, our freedom, our way of life… We are called to love them too!
It’s been hard! People spoke to me on their way out the door back on January 15th and told me that they were feeling really challenged by a call to love their enemies. I got four emails that week, and in sixteen yeas of preaching I have never had four emails in one week about a sermon, from people telling me that they were having a very hard time figuring out how to live into that call.
We have been wrestling with the call to love our enemies. And now, almost a month later, just when we thought it was safe to go back in the water… we get hit with the sequel from Matthew! That call just won’t go away!
And I just have to say… thanks be to God!
Thanks be to God that we are hearing this again today because we so need to be reminded of this central tenant of Jesus’ teachings right now. We need to be reminded again and again, because loving our enemies is a vocation, a commitment, a skill that seems to be in very short supply right now.
It doesn’t much matter which side of the argument you inhabit right now. The one thing that we seem to be able to agree on is that the tenor of our dialog is out of control. We are assaulted with a steady stream of personal invective and attack. It seems as if it’s not enough to disagree, to challenge someone’s position or opinion. If you are at odds with someone you need to publicly humiliate and destroy them.
What happened to respecting the dignity of every human being? What happened to the truth that we are all one, bound together by God’s love? How can it be that we can’t even bring ourselves to pray for the people with whom we struggle and disagree?
Perhaps if we could learn how to love our enemies, to disagree without denying, diminishing, or demeaning our opponent’s humanity, we might actually begin to find our way forward, together, through dialog, compromise, and common ground.
So let’s see what we can do about increasing our desire and our proficiency shall we?
Here’s a little exercise. I want you to imagine the person who you find it most difficult to love. That person doesn’t have to be living. It can be a historical figure. It can be someone you know personally. It can be someone you know of, or about, but have never met…
Got it? Ok. Now ask yourself, you don’t have to do this out loud or share it with the person next to you… Ask yourself, “Does God love this person? Is this person wrapped in God’s Mercy, Grace and Love?”
Before you answer I have another question to ask.
How do we justify hating our enemies?
It seems to me that the only way to do that is to say that they have lost the right to lay claim on us through our common bonds of humanity, that they are undeserving of our consideration, that they are not worthy of love.
But every time we try to make that move, asserting that someone is unworthy of love, we are confronted by St. Paul’s bold teaching in The Letter to the Romans:
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
When we try to justify hating our enemies we are confronted by Jesus’ words in the Gospel According to Matthew:
“for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45).
When we try to justify hating our enemies we are confronted by Jesus, who experienced us at our very worst; Jesus who came to share God’s love, to teach, preach and show us how to experience eternal life; Jesus, dead at our hands, murdered, hung on a tree. When we try to justify hating our enemies we are confronted by the Jesus who refused to turn his back on us and walk away; Jesus who came back and loved us anyway.
Nothing can separate us from the Love of God! God makes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Not even evil and unrighteousness can separate us from God’s love! God has experienced us at our very worst and loves us anyway!
Now let’s go back to our unlovable person. What were you thinking? Does God love this person? Is this person wrapped in God’s Mercy, Grace and Love? This is really important. How we answer this question makes a big difference in the way that we experience ourselves, one another, the world, and God.
If we can convince ourselves that the person we can’t love has done something so awful that they have lost God’s love, that has caused God to turn God’s back on them and walk away… then isn’t is just possible that we could share that same fate?
If we decide to believe, despite the scriptural testimony, that it is in fact possible to lose God’s love… we could find ourselves walking around terrified, constantly looking over our shoulder, guarding our every step, burying the master’s treasure in the ground, for fear that we might do something to lose the love that God so wants to share with us.
When we justify our failure to love by asserting that someone isn’t worthy, that they are somehow inherently unlovable, we have done violence to them, to the God who loves us all unconditionally, and to ourselves. Our failure to love diminishes us by impairing our ability to experience the love that God so wants us to know and share.
There is one more imperative in today’s Gospel that we nee to consider. In the very last sentence of our reading from Matthew Jesus says,
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
I know that may sound even more daunting than loving our enemies and, for some of us, a call to be perfect may sound like a call to a way of being that we have been trying to outgrow. But don’t go there too fast.
In a recent blog post, David Lose, biblical scholar and President of The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, tells us that,
“…the word we translate “perfect” is actually the Greek word telos and implies less a moral perfection than it does reaching one’s intended outcome.”
“…which means that we might translate this passage more loosely to mean, “Be the person and community God created you to be, just as God is the One God is supposed to be.”
It is our call, our vocation, our telos, our purpose, our end… to be a people who love our enemies, who work to end the cycle of retributive hate and violence. God creates us to be a community of love.
That makes the call to love even stronger but I’m not sure that makes it any easier.
Loving our enemies requires a decision to love, a commitment, maybe even a skill that we have to learn. It will take work!
So I would like to propose that today we make a start, that we begin the journey towards the life to which God calls us and for which God created us by praying together.
Would you please open your Book of Common Prayer to page 816 and join me in a Prayer for our Enemies…
O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love
our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth:
deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in
your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.