June 22, 2014
“Loving Your Enemies”
Sermon Series: Historic Sermons for a New Day
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Imagine Jesus, standing on a hillside, looking down on ancient Palestine, seeing there the oppressed and the oppressors, seeing how the Romans used force and brutality to rule, seeing how the Jews resented it and prayed for a savior and plotted their little revolutions.
Imagine that the followers of Jesus are standing near him and taking in the same view. They still half hope that Jesus will be the revolutionary leader they have been waiting for, someone who will make them not feel so powerless. Judas, in particular, just wants Jesus to act, stop wasting time talking about justice and do something, anything, to make some justice happen. He thinks that if he can just find the right button to push, Jesus will react. Perhaps if there were soldiers coming to arrest him, maybe then Jesus would raise his sword and the revolution would begin.
But Jesus, standing there, says to himself, this is not the way to do it. Because hate grows more hate in the world, force only creates more force, one evil act begets another. There is only thing that can change the world, love.
Imagine Martin Luther King, 28 years old, looking out at the congregation at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama in 1957. The Montgomery bus boycott had taken place just two years before. It would be a few years more before he organizes non-violent protests that will draw national attention because of the brutal police response.
And he saw a nation of oppressed people and oppressors, and he saw people use force to maintain the status quo, and he saw people leaning towards violent uprisings. And he says to himself, this is not the way to do it. So he read from the passage we read today, a passage he had preached on at least twice a year because he thought it was so important.
And he looks out at the congregation and says, “Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for enemies.”
We find Jesus’ words about loving enemies in his sermon on the mount, where he looks out at the crowds that have gathered to hear him speak. He tells them some things that we have been grappling with ever since – like what does it mean to be truly blessed in this life – like what does it look like to make peace with someone you’ve insulted — like what does it mean to truly love another human being, whether you actually like them or not.
Jesus’ words reveal how God intends us to walk through this world, as if each person we encounter is worthy of love and is God’s own.
Dr. King would say that we can’t write off all this talk as if it were some kind of exaggeration. Jesus wasn’t playing. He knew it would be hard.
And Dr. King says to us, “We have the Christian and moral responsibility to seek to discover the meaning of these words, and to discover how we can live out this command, and why we should live by this command.” And that is as true now as it was then.
That word enemies feels a little foreign to our ears. Who bears the label of “our enemies”? People who actively hate us, probably. People we argue with or disagree with, perhaps. I think the best definition is that an enemy is someone you do not claim as your own – an outsider, the other, the one against you. So that can be your passive-aggressive co-worker, your angry neighbor, another parent that you cannot get along with, the friend who drives you crazy. There are lots of people that we would not claim as our own, even in our own families.
Now Dr. King approaches this text in an interesting way – he says that where we begin loving our enemies is not by looking at them differently, but by looking at ourselves differently.
There may be things about us, over which we have no control, that cause people to hate us. And there are things over which we do have control – so we begin there. This is what Jesus means when he said: “How is it that you can see the speck in your brother’s eye and not notice the log in your own eye?”
So we begin to love our enemies and love those persons that hate us by looking at ourselves. Our first instinct is to remember and retell everything that is wrong about the enemy – every wrong word, every wrong act. We rarely see our own fault as we highlight the fault of another person. Dr. King urges us to own, with humility, our own failings, our own contributions to the conflict.
Next, Dr. King tells us to look for the good in our enemies because every person has some good and some bad. We are divided within ourselves and there is this continual struggle within the very nature of every individual life.
There is something within all of us that causes us to cry out with the Apostle Paul, “I see and approve the better things of life, but the evil things I do.”
Dr. King says that this simply means: “That within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. When we come to see this, we take a different attitude toward individuals. The person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation that hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has some good in it. And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls ‘the image of God,’ you begin to love him. No matter what he does, you see God’s image there. . . Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men, so that you love everybody, because God loves them.”
Dr. King tells the story of driving one evening from Tennessee to Atlanta with his brother A.D. His brother was driving the car. And for some reason the drivers were very discourteous that night. They didn’t dim their lights; hardly any driver that passed by dimmed his lights. And Dr. King says, “I remember very vividly, my brother looked over and in a tone of anger said: “I know what I’m going to do. The next car that comes along here and refuses to dim the lights, I’m going to fail to dim mine and pour them on in all of their power.” And I looked at him right quick and said: “Oh no, don’t do that. There’d be too much light on this highway, and it will end up in mutual destruction for all. Somebody got to have some sense on this highway.”
And that’s how Dr. King saw hate working in the world if unchecked. If no one has the courage or strength to choose to dim the lights, all are blinded and all are destroyed.
He preached, “Hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. If I hit you and you hit me and I hit you back and you hit me back and go on, you see, that goes on ad infinitum. Somewhere somebody must have a little sense, and that’s the strong person. The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil. Somebody must have religion enough and morality enough to cut it off and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love.”
There is something about hate that changes the person who hates. Dr. King saw it in his brother – the wise move was not to return rudeness with rudeness, but he could not see that.
Hate distorts the hater. Dr. King says, “You just begin hating somebody, and you will begin to do irrational things. You can’t see straight when you hate. You can’t walk straight when you hate. You can’t stand upright. Your vision is distorted . . . For the person who hates, you can stand up and see a person and that person can be beautiful, and you will call them ugly. For the person who hates, the beautiful becomes ugly and the ugly becomes beautiful. For the person who hates, the good becomes bad and the bad becomes good.”
Love has the power to change all that, not only changing the nature of the hater, but changing also the nature of the hated, of the enemy.
Martin Luther King Jr saw love as a life-changing, redemptive power, a force that could change people, a force that could change the world.
He said that Jesus said to 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. . . . 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.”
One more quote, my favorite part of his whole sermon. Dr. King looks out at the congregation and says, “So this morning, as I look into your eyes, and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you, ‘I love you. I would rather die than hate you.’ And I’m foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed. And then we will be in God’s kingdom.”
Imagine that we are looking out at our world, and we see that when we are hit, we hit back, when we are insulted we sling back insults, every act of aggression gets an escalated act of aggression, and we see that, in Ghandi’s words, an eye for an eye is making the whole world blind. So we must hear Jesus’ words again and again to remember that this is not the way. Love can change the world if we only have the courage to try. Amen.