Click on the play button above to hear audio of this Sermon.
I know Lent is still more than a week away, and I know Lent is about so much more than giving something up.
And yet, I can’t help but wonder: What if we all gave up something for Lent this year? More than that, what if we all gave up the same thing?
Not just any thing, but one of the worst things.
I’m talking, of course, about hate.
Yes, I know we should not hate anyone at any time of year—but we have to start somewhere, right?
Today—right now, even—would be an even better time to give up hating, but this sacrifice is easier said than made. So maybe we need a little time to reflect on who and how we hate. Perhaps we need a little time to consider how our actions can be hateful even if we don’t intend them to be. Perhaps, as our friends in the recovery movement say, we need to take an inventory before we can make a change.
Maybe we need to stop hating our enemies before we can begin loving them. Maybe we need to stop sharing negativity and fomenting division and, instead, start lifting up the downtrodden and sharing reasons for hope.
Maybe we need to give up hatred before the phrase “love your enemies” can become something more than just an empty phrase or a religious abstraction. Maybe we have to be intentional about not hating before both we and our enemies can be healed and changed by the power of extravagant love—a love based not on affection or sameness, agreement or merit, worth or blamelessness, but on the open-hearted goodness and compassion of the lover.
What do you think?
None of us wants to hate, and yet we can come up with all kinds of justification for it. None of us intends to get sucked into the cycle of hurt and outrage and anger and hate and, then, violence of one kind or another. And yet we continue to expose ourselves to despair-inducing information and hate-triggering media. Oh, we try to walk the fine line between righteous anger and harmful hate but it is hard, living in these times.
And then, before we know it, without really meaning to, we are hating.
Because we believe a certain person’s actions are evil. Because we see a certain agency tearing families apart. Because violence is everywhere. Because white people are so fragile. Because so many policymakers are whistling on the way to the climate-change graveyard. Because way too many clergy in far too many churches abuse women and children and some men. Because the stakes are so high. Because we feel so powerless. Because we want to be able to do something. Because we spend so much time watching and listening to haters yell at one another. Because we can.
Because, because, because.
“How did we become so filled with hate?” Anne Lamott asks in her latest book. 1 “This is not who we are.”
And yet, she adds, “certain people of late have caused a majority of us to experience derangement. Some of us have developed hunchbacks, or tics in our eyelids. Even my Buddhist friends have been feeling despair, and when they go bad, you know the end is nigh.”
My rheumatologist tells me of his elderly patients who are so upset about what’s happening in our country that they can’t sleep or eat, and their blood pressure goes up and up and up. Their anger and anxiety, perhaps mixed with a little hate, is affecting their health, and there is nothing their doctor can do to help them.
However justified we think our hatred might be, the Jews of first-century Palestine had even more reasons to hate: Their land occupied by the Roman Empire, the temple authorities collaborating with the Romans, the tax collectors getting rich while making them poorer, injustice at every turn, danger around every corner.
And yet it was one of their own, Jesus of Nazareth, who encouraged them to love their enemies, do good to those who hated them, bless those who cursed them, and pray for those who abused them. These were not hypothetical categories of people; these were the individuals, institutions, and systems that shaped their daily lives.
Or consider African American slaves and their descendants, Native American tribes and their remnants, would-be immigrants fleeing for their lives, pretty much every person of color, countless individuals unjustly jailed, every person who’s ever been abused by someone they trusted, the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized of every time and place.
And yet it was a former slave, educator Booker T. Washington, who said, “I shall allow no man to belittle my soul by making me hate him.”
Because hate hurts the hater more than the hated.
“Hate turns us into” the people we hate, Lamott says. “We become fused with people when we hate them. We’re not us anymore. We become like them.”
And this is a serious problem. Because hate dehumanizes. And when we have made those we hate the “other,” when we can no longer relate to them as children of God, we have opened the door to all manner of evil: discrimination, marginalization, persecution, imprisonment, violence—even genocide.
And this is why, when some of our partners in sanctuary work want to hold protest actions and press conferences here, I am conflicted. This is why, when I am invited to speak at a rally where I know the F-bomb will be thrown repeatedly at certain elected officials and government agencies, I have to think long and hard, and actually pray about it. It’s not that I am afraid of being political; God knows Jesus was political, and our faith is political. It is not that I am overly concerned about protecting our reputation, though I take seriously my responsibility to represent you in ways that will bring honor to the church as well as the gospel.
It’s because I am concerned for our hearts and souls—yours and mine. It’s because I have seen how bitterness and hatred can eat people up from the inside. It’s because Jesus was born into an us-versus-them world, and he died to show us the way beyond such hateful division. It’s because he still calls us to live into the love we were created for.
It’s because learning to love this way is hard. Because opening ourselves to love, and making ourselves available to love as God loves is the spiritual work of our lives.
But we live in the real world, you say, a world of winners and losers, where the number of racist, anti-semitic hate groups is on the rise.
Jesus, too, lived in the real world. And He knew that hate is alienating and dehumanizing, while love is empowering and transformative.
Love is also subversive.
And so Jesus told his followers to turn the other cheek—because this would require their attackers to hit them with the back of their right hand, a disempowering position. He told his followers to give their shirt as well as their cloak, if so demanded, because nudity shamed the person who saw it. He told them that if they were ordered to carry a Roman soldier’s burden for a mile, to go an extra mile—because this violated the soldier’s code of honor and would jeopardize his standing.
Jesus was not telling his followers to be doormats or to allow themselves to be abused, but rather to subvert the powers of evil and give their oppressors a way to moderate their abusive behaviors.
Nelson Mandela, imprisoned by South Africa’s apartheid regime for 27 years, might have become an angry and embittered man. But he had holy work to do, children of God to empower, a nation to save. “In that situation,” he said, “it’s very difficult to find room for hate.”
I went to seminary with a woman named T.C. Morrow, a lifelong United Methodist and an out lesbian. She knew her denomination did not accept her, and yet she felt called by God to ordained ministry. More than once, her regional conference’s annual meeting has rejected her candidacy because she is married to a woman. And, more than once, she has submitted herself for reconsideration at the next year’s meeting.
T.C. could have walked away from the United Methodist church, a global denomination that has continued to condemn “the practice of homosexuality.” But she has refused to give in to bitterness and hate and has, instead, continued to pray that her faithfulness will be an instrument of God’s love, growth, and transformation. Today she is in St. Louis, at the church’s General Conference, where votes on same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay clergy could formally split the church into two or even three separate denominations.
Whatever the result of the votes, the questions facing the United Methodists and all of us will be the same as the ones Jesus asked:
Do we want to be saved from our bitterness and anger, separation and judgment? Do we want to saved from this world of hostility and hatred, division and violence? Do we want to know how to break the cycle?
“Love your enemies,” Jesus said. “Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you.”
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., put it this way: “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
Will you join me in giving up hate for Lent?