February 19, 2016
“Love Your Enemies”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
Matthew 5:38-48 (NRSV)
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;
40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. 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.
One day last winter I dropped my kids off at preschool and was on my way out of the north end of the city for a usual Friday morning of errand-running. It was a bitterly cold day, made worse by strong gusts of wind.
All of a sudden I saw a woman walking with bags of groceries looped over her arms and when the wind gusted she had to bend over in half to keep from falling over. So I did some split second calculations.
There was definitely room in my car for her and her bags.
I was not rushing off to any set appointments – I had time.
So yes I can stop and offer this woman a ride to wherever she needs to go.
I check my rearview mirror to make sure I am not going to cause an accident by pulling over quickly, and decide that the safest thing is to pass her and pull over in front of her.
As I am slowing down, just passing her, she looks up and looks me straight in the eye, and gives me the finger. And I was so surprised that I just kept going.
Sometimes loving other people is a challenge. Sometimes loving people feels like a jumble of calculations, many small decisions evaluating risk and reward, and sometimes it just feels like the risk is too great.
I have long struggled with Jesus’ words here from the Sermon on the Mount. Reaching back even before the start of chapter five in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life, we find Jesus traveling far and wide and encountering many different kinds of people, and Matthew tells us specifically that Jesus meets people suffering from every kind of illness and disease, meaning that Jesus is seeing crowds of the poorest, most unloved, most unwanted.
These people have been told, maybe their entire lives, that they are God-forsaken, that they are being punished. Jesus sees people under the weight of oppression, and the Romans bear down on them, letting them know that they are inferior.
And Jesus makes them whole again and gives them hope. So it is no surprise that masses of people follow after him.
If you have your Bibles open you’ll notice something interesting about the start of chapter 5 in Matthew.
Jesus sees the crowds and he seems to move away from them, to a higher place, and it is only his disciples who come and find him there and he begins teaching them, saying to them “Blessed are the poor in Spirit . . . “ but if you look ahead to the end of the sermon in chapter 7 verse 28, Jesus finishes saying all these things and Matthew tells us that the crowds were astounded at his teaching. Imagine for a moment that small gathering of disciples seated around Jesus, listening intently.
Jesus has seen the oppression of the people, heard their stories of pain, touched their wounds. Jesus knows the people are desperate for identity, desperately needing to be called blessed, to be called salt and light, and then more than that, to be told how to live again and to live together.
Imagine that small group of people growing, one person, then more and more, swarming over the hillside, longing to hear from God, being drawn in by words of grace and truth and love, like moths to a flame – we are drawn to this Gospel, this good news, these words of hope and healing, we are drawn to God, sometimes even in spite of ourselves.
Just like when author Anne Lamott describes her experience of struggling with addiction and bulimia and self-loathing, and she reaches a point of crisis after an abortion, and she finds herself outside a Presbyterian church drawn in by the music and held by the love she found there. Lamott says, “I found that I was really drawn to the Jesus part. And I didn’t want to be.”
Jesus says to the growing crowds, “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; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?”
When is it that the crowds had heard “love you neighbor and hate your enemy?” Perhaps it is part of their story as a people set apart. Love those who are like you, despise those who are not – keep them out of your families and your communities.
But we’ve heard this too, haven’t we? Maybe nobody said it out loud but we have learned it anyway – love those who love you back, love those who are like you, and if someone is not like you, feel free to push them away, to be cruel, to judge them, and assume you know exactly what they are like.
Jesus says, in essence, “You thought the world could be divided up into who belonged to you and who didn’t, into who you loved because it was easy or self-serving, and who you didn’t have to love at all because they were unpleasant or cruel or different and they weren’t going to love you back.” Turns out we don’t get to label people as “lovable” or “unlovable.”
I have struggled with Jesus’ words here personally and professionally.
As a followers of Christ, I want to do what he says.
As a pastor, being loving feels like it is written into my job description.
I can think of people who are easy to love, and I can think of people who are hard to love. I can think of situations where I feel full of love, and situations where I am petty, and mean, and short-tempered and judgmental.
And perhaps you know what this feels like.
Whether we love or not seems to depend a whole lot on the other person, whether they are easy to love, whether love us back, whether they are grateful or ungrateful.
I’ve taken our youth on many mission trips where we serve complete strangers. We are inside their homes, fixing floors and roofs and plumbing. And sometimes the homeowners are so warm and welcoming they feel like family. They bring us iced tea and sandwiches. They jump in and help whenever they can. It is so easy to serve them and love them. Some of them still send us notes. And sometimes the homeowners aren’t around. Sometimes they are grumpy and impatient and critical, sometimes they are ungrateful.
So much seems to hang on the object of our loving – whether they are worthy of love, whether they will love us back, whether they will be grateful or ungrateful, whether it will make us feel good or not. But I think this is what is tripping us up – we are focusing on the wrong thing.
Richard Rohr has helped me a great deal in this. He writes about how “Authentic love is of one piece. How you love anything is how you love everything. Love is a quality of relationship more than a statement about the worthiness or deservedness of the object loved.”
And to be clear when Jesus uses the word “love” he is not talking in terms of an internal emotional state, like feelings; he is not asking us to “feel loving” towards our enemies. It means instead: be loyal to them, join your fate with theirs, seek their welfare, their fair and just treatment.
While I was on sabbatical last summer I heard a true story in a podcast (http://www.npr.org/programs/invisibilia/485603559/flip-the-script) which has stuck with me and it comes to mind when I think about what it looks like to live out Jesus’ words in real life. The story takes place in Aarhus, Denmark, which is a thriving, prosperous, tidy small town on the coast of Denmark. It is such a nice place that when the local TV station tried to do a social experiment where they dropped wallets around the town to see how many were returned, the experiment failed because people kept picking up the wallets and returning them immediately. It seemed like the type of place that darkness and hatred could not penetrate.
And then in 2012 two policemen are sitting in their office when a call comes in from terrified, frantic parents that their child has gone missing. And then there is another and another, twenty-seven total young men who have disappeared in the middle of the night or from their schools, and all the parents have is rumors that they have gone to Syria.
And the parents are so desperate, they hound the police daily, calling them on their personal cell phones. And the police did not understand what was going on, but it slowly became clear that these young men had become jihadists.
And these two policemen decide that they are going to take on this problem on and find a solution. They want to help these parents get their children back, but that might mean getting back a bunch of angry terrorists. They needed a plan for fighting terrorism.
There is a lot more to the story than I can share here but the police decide to start calling up Muslim young men and ask them to sit down and have coffee with them.
They call one young Somalian man on the verge of preparing to leave for Syria, who had painful experiences of racial and religious hatred toward him in his school. He is angry and he hated cops and for good reason. A classmate accused him of being a radical, he was suspended from school, the police came to his house and interrogated him in front of his mother who died of a heart attack not long afterward.
He says in the podcast, “So, I thought, they called me a terrorist. I would give them a terrorist.”
So the cop calls him up, and the young man says some terrible things to the cop (which I won’t mention here), and says “I’m going to go to Syria and there is nothing you can do to stop me,” and just as he is about to hang up the phone, the cop says, “Wait, wait, wait, I’m sorry.”
The young man had never heard a cop say they were sorry, and so he agreed to come in for coffee.
What the cops decided to do was combat terrorism with love, not only for the young people who came home, but for the many young people who hadn’t left yet.
They called them up and invited them for coffee.
They found them jobs and apartments, they listened to their stories, connected them with social services, they got them re-enrolled in school, they gave them mentors who taught them what it looked like to belong in the community.
When the young men returned the cops didn’t go to the airport and arrest them, they called them once they got home and invited them in, and if they were injured they took them to get medical treatment.
And the word spread – the kids in Syria wanted to come home, they wanted to come in for coffee. Thirty four youth from Aarhus went to Syria, six were killed, 10 haven’t returned, 18 came home, and showed up in the cops’ office along with 330 other potential young radicals. When other European countries were threatening punishment and jail time, and removing passports, these cops offered love.
Love is the manner in which we encounter the world.
It is the essence of how we relate to everything, and therefore it doesn’t make calculations about risk and reward, it doesn’t weigh costs and benefits, and it doesn’t make judgements about worthiness of anything or anyone to be loved.
And the reason that we as Christians can move through the world this way, is because we are not relying on ourselves to produce it.
Jesus gives us two great commandments, love your God and love you neighbor so these two commands are linked together as Richard Rohr puts it, “We love others from the same Source, with the same Love, that allows us to love ourselves, others, and God at the same time! That is, unfortunately, not the way most people understand love, compassion, and forgiveness, but it is the only way loving truly will ever work.
How you love is how you have accessed Love, just as it is between the three Persons of the Trinity.”
How we love is of one piece with how we know God’s love.
And how do we know God’s love? This is where discipleship comes into to it, friends. We experience God’s love through prayer, we experience God’s love through the Bible, we experience God’s love through worship and surrender and sacrifice. We get moments of it in a church. So seek God’s love and see what happens. Amen.