I wrote this sermon title and then thought, “I wonder what I will say? I’d like to know how to love my enemies.”
This text from Luke is hard. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” This is hard! What do we do with this?
Here’s the general outline of where I want to go this morning in exploring this reading along with the reading from Genesis:
Explore what the text in Luke is not saying.
Talk about what it is saying.
Consider examples of ways to love our enemies.
We begin with what this text is not saying. One could rightly get the impression that Jesus is advising people to be passive, to take abuse without complaining, to let others walk all over them. Some people think that’s what Christians are supposed to do. There are church pastors who will tell abused women to go back to their abusive husbands, to love and forgive those husbands, and to put up with the abuse.
No! That advice itself is abusive. I can see how one could get that interpretation from this passage, and I strongly condemn that reading. “Let yourself be bullied. Let yourself be abused. Roll over and just take it.” Is that consistent with what Jesus says everywhere else about loving your neighbor as yourself? About freedom for the captives and liberation for the oppressed? No! Taking abuse is not loving to yourself or to the one committing the abuse. The message that the abused person internalizes is, “I deserve this. This is all I am worth.” That is not a loving message, not an empowering or healing message. And the message that an abuser internalizes is that this kind of behavior is acceptable. That is not doing the abuser any favors, either. It is not a loving, just response to the situation.
So what is Jesus saying here?
If Jesus had known the word karma, he might have described this passage as his karma sermon. Life is hard. It is often not fair. People do mean things, and sometimes they do them to us. Bad things happen. What Jesus is saying is that we always have choices about how we respond, and the karma we put out there is what’s going to come back to us. “The measure you give will be the measure you get back.” If we respond tit for tat, we are no better than the people doing mean things to us. We have sunk to their level. Jesus is holding us to a higher standard. He is saying, “When they go low, we go high.” We respond creatively, compassionately, in ways that preserve our own self-worth as well as the worth of the other person. We find another way. When someone is coming at us, instead of blocking or hitting back, we sidestep, as in . . . is it tai chi? Or we respond with love instead of hate, which just confuses people.
The most loving thing one might be able to do in an abusive relationship is to get out, to say, “I love myself too much to let you treat me this way, and I love you too much to let you think that this behavior is all right. I pray that you will get help for your uncontrollable rage so that you can have a good life.” That is how you pray for your abuser, not by continuing to submit to abuse.
I struggle with this commandment to love my enemies in these times when there is so much divisiveness in our politics and culture today. What used to be differences of opinion have now become apparently unbridgeable chasms. We are getting into our camps, and the camps are pushing farther and farther to extremes. I have heard some of you say you can no longer have civil conversations with people in your own families. The chasm cuts through our closest relationships, creating walls or canyons where there used to be bridges.
What can we do?
I’m not going to pretend that I have all the answers. Frankly, I sometimes turn off the radio when certain voices come on these days, because my perception is that some people are mainly motivated by raw power, greed, corruption, and pure meanness. They seem to thrive on wrecking things—wrecking the environment, wrecking the social services that people depend on to get by, bankrupting the government. It’s a mess, and sometimes I just turn the radio off. I only have so much bandwidth in my psyche for that energy.
But Jesus calls us to a higher response. Thank you, Jesus! So we need some strategies.
One of my UCC Facebook friends from across the country put this question out there for discussion. She wrote:
“When someone tells you that they are absolutely right (!) and you are SO wrong (!), and invoke their BFF Jesus to prove just how wrong you really are (!)—how do you respond?”
“How interesting! I think differently about that.” Or “How interesting! I understand what Jesus taught differently.” The “how interesting” opens me up to listen—to expect something worth learning from the other person. The “differently” reminds me that I’m not necessarily right, either. Basically, these statements give me something to say so I don’t appear to agree by being silent, yet they open me up for the Spirit to speak to me (and maybe through me). [Jane Smith responding to Karen Richardson Dunn’s post on Facebook.]
I have recently gotten to know a Quaker named Tom Ewell who works on civil discourse. He actively seeks out connections with people who are unlike him—different political leanings, different faith background, etc. He starts by listening and inviting people’s stories, and he said those stories often emerge right away. He refuses to think in us/them categories. I’m paying attention to his openness and to his intentional work to build bridges instead of walls. He’s a model for me of someone who is walking the talk.
So we can open ourselves up with authentic curiosity, a willingness to listen without judging, and a humility about our own stands.
Another strategy is to think creatively instead of antagonistically. A recent article in Scientific American proposed this idea about how to deal with our southern border:
Instead of an endless, inert wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, line the boundary with 2,000 miles of natural gas, solar and wind power plants. Use some of the energy to desalinate water from the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean and ship it through pipelines to thirsty towns, businesses and new farms along the entire border zone. Hire hundreds of thousands of people from both countries to build and run it all. Companies would make money and provide security to safe guard their assets. A contentious, costly no-man’s-land would be transformed into a corridor of opportunity. [Mark Fischetti, “Bold Plan? Replasce the Border Wall with an Energy-Water Corridor,” Scientific American, accessed online February 15, 2019.]
There’s no “us” or “them” in that proposal. There’s only all of us in a win-win that will take all of us to build. I want to live in that world.
Joseph is just a kid when his brothers sell him into slavery. When he meets them again, decades later, the tables are turned: he is in a position of great power, the keeper of the keys to all the food, and they are sojourners fleeing famine, in danger of starvation. They are undocumented immigrants, at the bottom of the priority list for food. He could totally wreak revenge on them when they are this vulnerable, but he is not stuck in that revenge-type of thinking. Instead, they get fed, they survive, and he gets his family back. Pharaoh gives them the choicest land in Egypt. (Imagine if we greeted our undocumented immigrants that way!)
Joseph could have stayed stuck in hate and revenge mode his entire life. His brothers took away everything and everyone in his life. But because he remains open to God working in and through him, he gets to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams in a way that suggests a successful strategy for everyone to survive the seven-year famine. Joseph rises to great power as Pharaoh’s right-hand man. So when his brothers travel to Egypt seeking food and come before the man who controls whether or not they will eat and thus live, and when that man turns out to be the long-lost brother whom they had sold into slavery, the text says that they were dismayed. Huh-oh. We did this terrible thing to him as a kid, and now he’s going to let us starve as punishment. We put bad karma out there, and it’s coming back to bite us.
We are facing a situation now that has some parallels to Joseph and his brothers. White people long ago sold black people into slavery and justified these actions to themselves. White people were in the position of power. Although slavery has been abolished since the 1860s, racism continues to play out through the generations. But white people in this country will soon be a minority. When the power dynamics shift around, will those of us who are white be dismayed, like Joseph’s brothers? Will we have the humility to accept our new status? Are we willing to examine our white privilege and see how it has kept in place systems oppressive to people of color? How will we make amends? For eight years we had a black president, and we saw a lot of hateful behavior by white people in reaction to seeing a black man in power. Will people of color rise above the tit-for-tat thinking, as the Civil Rights Movement advised, and seek justice with love? That’s a hard calling, when injustice against people of color has played out with such oppressive violence for centuries. So God bless all of those who are willing to meet in the middle somewhere, to build bridges over chasms, to build bridges instead of walls—or to build whole power grids that employ people along the border instead of walls to keep them out.
Tennessee Williams (per “The Secret City” on Facebook):
The world is violent and mercurial—it will have its way with you. We are saved only by love—love for each other and the love that we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent; being a writer; being a painter; being a friend. We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.
Many of us have been victimized in some way. Many of us have broken relationships in our lives. We can choose not to stay stuck in that role of victim, not to be stuck in hate and revenge and chasms of separation. Move on with love. Move on with healing for yourself. Find what is life-giving and live in that space. If the person on the other side of the chasm is not open to dialogue, let them know a bridge is an option, and then do what is healthy for you.
Earlier I said Jesus might have called this passage his karma sermon. Hear these words again:
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged;
do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.
Forgive, and you will be forgiven;
give, and it will be given to you.
A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap;
for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
Let us always be willing to free ourselves from living in a place of hate and revenge, to stand for love and justice, and to open ourselves to God’s love working in and through us to find a better way. Amen.