Matthew 5:21-26, 38-48, from The Message
Our scriptures this morning come from the Sermon on the Mount, a collection of sayings and teachings that most biblical scholars believe were not delivered in one so-called sermon to one audience in one location. Instead, it is likely that Matthew and Luke collected the various sayings and presented them as one teaching, perhaps because Jesus said them so often. Perhaps because, taken together, these teachings represent Jesus’ greatest hits, the things he said over and over again because they were so important, so challenging, and so essential to understanding, envisioning, and creating the kingdom of God—as opposed to living under the empire of Rome, by the laws of religion, according to the unwritten cultural rules of a given society, or in reaction to the administration of a certain president.
We come upon these sayings today not because we haven’t talked a lot lately about the importance of loving our enemies. Not because I’m eager to preach yet another sermon with applications to our current political reality—although once again the president has provided a timely object lesson, most recently by calling journalists “enemies of the American people.” No, we come up against this hard teaching once again because enemy love is in the lectionary for today. (And you thought the Bible wasn’t relevant?)
But there’s also that other part of the reading, the section that comes before the “love your enemies” part. It comes to us from last week’s lectionary readings, a passage we didn’t hear because of the special service led by the Anti-racism Team. And so I thought it might also be worth reflecting on today.
Beyond that, I haven’t chosen these scriptures. I am not using them to try to make a point. They are the Word that has been given to us. And they are words that we, all of us, are always in need of hearing.
Because, let’s face it, loving our enemies can feel like a piece of cake compared to treating our neighbors with kindness and respect. Turning the other cheek to an oppressor can feel much easier, not to mention more admirable, than letting go of a grudge against that annoying person sitting just a few pews away or being straightforward with the wordy person leading worship. We know the bit about giving a pesky tormenter the shirt off our back and the part about going the second mile, but biting our tongues and swallowing our pride to make amends with friends and associates? Being kind to someone we don’t like or someone we’re mad at? Actually engaging in common courtesies with someone we don’t want anything to do with? Now, that’s tough.
This love business is hard, friends. This walking through the world with an open, unprotected heart can be downright dangerous. It seems only natural that when we are wronged we want to hit back, that when we are hurt we react from our pain and sometimes lash out. It’s so much easier to avoid the people we don’t like, to write off those we disagree with, to collect resentment stamps instead of trying to come to an understanding, to talk about the people we’re mad at instead of talking to them.
And then, before we know it, our dislike of certain individuals or types of people, our hurts and our grudges, our anger and judgment begin eating us up inside. Before we know it, we have projected our faults and fears, our pain and anger onto an “other.” Then, the next thing you know we have made opponents of our neighbors, divided the world into us and them, and created enemies of those in power over us, enemies of those we simply disagree with or just don’t like. Pretty soon we are seething with anger at people who may not even know they’ve upset us. Pretty soon we are killing people with our words. Before long, our grudges are coming between us and God.
Now, just in case you’re starting to squirm, just in case you’re wondering if I’m talking about you, let me be clear: I am talking about you. I am! I am also talking about myself. I am talking about us all. I am talking about how much easier it is to follow some do’s and don’ts, come to church regularly, give of our money and time, hold all the right views, work our hearts out for justice, and still miss the love-boat completely because we are not loving our neighbors, much less our enemies. Much less our God.
The great pastor and writer Frederick Buechner puts it this way:
Cain hated Abel for standing higher in God’s esteem than he felt he himself did, so he killed him. King Saul hated David for stealing the hearts of the people with his winning ways and tried to kill him every chance he got. Saul of Tarsus hated the followers of Jesus because he thought they were blasphemers and heretics and made a career of rounding them up so they could be stoned to death like Stephen. By and large most of us don’t have enemies like that anymore, and in a way it’s a pity.
It would be pleasant to think it’s because we’re more civilized nowadays, but maybe it’s only because we’re less honest, open, brave. We tend to avoid fiery outbursts for fear of what they may touch off both in ourselves and the ones we burst out at. We smolder instead. If people hurt us or cheat us or stand for things we abominate, we’re less apt to bear arms against them than to bear grudges. We stay out of their way. When we declare war, it is mostly submarine warfare, and since our attacks are beneath the surface, it may be years before we know fully the damage we have either given or sustained.
Jesus says we are to love our enemies and pray for them, meaning love not in an emotional sense but in the sense of willing their good, which is the sense in which we love ourselves. It is a tall order even so. African Americans love white supremacists? The longtime employee who is laid off just before he qualifies for retirement with a pension love the people who call him in to break the news? The mother of the molested child love the molester? But when you see as clearly as that who your enemies are, at least you see your enemies clearly too.
You see the lines in their faces and the way they walk when they’re tired. You see who their husbands and wives are, maybe. You see where they’re vulnerable. You see where they’re scared. Seeing what is hateful about them, you may catch a glimpse also of where the hatefulness comes from. Seeing the hurt they cause you, you may see also the hurt they cause themselves. You’re still light-years away from loving them, to be sure, but at least you see how they are human even as you are human, and that is at least a step in the right direction. It’s possible that you may even get to where you can pray for them a little, if only that God forgive them because you yourself can’t, but any prayer for them at all is a major breakthrough.
In the long run, it may be easier to love the ones we look in the eye and hate, the enemies, than the ones whom—because we’re as afraid of ourselves as we are of them—we choose not to look at, at all.” 1
Yes, as hard as it may be for us to love some people, smoldering is harder still—on us. Our unkind or angry words can hurt another, but if we are not careful they will steal our peace and practically kill us and our capacity for compassion. As much as we might like to dwell in the mystical realm of faith, to focus on seeking union with God, Jesus is quite practical and down to earth about this. The God thing will not happen for you, he says, as long as you’re at odds with your neighbors and enemies, your spiritual siblings, your companions (chosen or not) on the journey.
Get out of your reptilian brain, he says, and live out of your God-heart. “Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” Go the extra mile. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Seek forgiveness. Offer forgiveness. As much as it is possible, be at peace with all. No matter if you are in the middle of worship, about to make your offering to God; if your heart is not right with even one of God’s children, God doesn’t want your praise. Go, make peace, and then come before the Holy One.
There are some things we do in church (and in the rest of our lives) that sometimes get disconnected from their original purpose. There are others we simply don’t understand or honor. For most of us, the Passing of the Peace is one of those things.
You see, it is not meant to be a churchy way of saying “hi.” It did not originate as a time to greet our friends and catch up on old news. Yet many of us think of it this way. (Indeed, it is common whenever churches discuss changing their worship services to consider cutting out the Passing of the Peace because, as someone will always say, “it takes too much time.”)
The Passing of the Peace is an ancient tradition based on the life of Jesus and the challenges facing the early church. Challenges from without, sure—persecution and all that—but also challenges from within—human nature and all that. Jesus was forever saying, “Peace be with you,” because we need to hear that, we need to know that peace can be ours, and we need to remember that we are called to be peacemakers. It is a modeling of what should be the foundation of our relationships with one another and how we are to treat each other, in church or out: peace. It is, as Buechner says, “a tall order.”
In its original place in Christian liturgy, in its truest purpose, the Passing of the Peace follows a prayer of confession and comes before the celebration of the Eucharist, or communion. It is, quite literally, an opportunity to go to our siblings in Christ and set things right with them before receiving the gifts that represent the very body and blood of the one who sought to make peace with all.
So let us love our enemies, our neighbors, and the person who works our last nerve. Let us spend less time judging one another and more time praying for each other. We, all of us, are beloved children of God; so, as Eugene Peterson says, let’s live like it.
And may the peace of Christ be with you.