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Matthew 5:43-48, from The Message
If you look in the topical index of our hymnal under LOVE, you’ll find references to a few different categories. There are hymns about the “CHRISTIAN UNITY” kind of love; there’s the “GOD, love of” listing; and “JESUS CHRIST, love of.” If you search for NEIGHBOR, the hymnal tells you to see the listings for DISCIPLESHIP and SERVICE.
But, look all you want, there is no “ENEMY, love of” category. In fact, if you flip back a few pages to consult the scriptural index, you’ll discover that there are no hymns based on our first reading, Matthew 5:43-48. Hmmm. I thought that was a pretty important section of the all-important Sermon on the Mount—you know, that long, stitched-together series of Jesus’ teachings that we took turns reading together a few weeks ago.
Zero. Zip. Nada.
I mean, I know loving our enemies is hard, and I know most of us would rather not be reminded that we’re supposed to do it. Still, I was surprised to discover just how few official worship and prayer resources we have to encourage us to love our enemies.
And that’s too bad.
Because it seems to me that until we learn how to love our enemies, until we at least commit ourselves to trying to love our enemies, we’ll have a very hard time loving ourselves and our neighbors. We will find it extremely difficult to make peace. And it will be all but impossible for us to truly love God.
I suppose I should tell you that I didn’t draw our scripture readings from the Revised Common Lectionary. Perhaps I should also explain that while elements of today’s sermon are drawn from events connected to the Democratic National Convention, they should not be construed as an endorsement of particular candidates or platforms.
After two weeks of political conventions, and with the presidential campaign heating up, we can hardly escape the daily bombardment of divisive and dehumanizing rhetoric. And some of what we hear and read is so polarizing that we fall easily into us-them thinking, making sweeping generalizations about supporters of the “other” candidates, calling them names and impugning their motives. Some of it is harsh enough to leave even the kindest, most gentle person seething with an angry disregard that borders on hatred.
Or maybe it’s just me.
So I thought it might be a good time for us to consider together Jesus’ admonition to love our enemies. I thought it might be a critical time for us to consider together how to do it, why to do it, and how to encourage one another through the daily setbacks and stumbles.
Fortunately, Jesus seemed to realize that some of his teachings would strike us as impractical, impossible, or just plain ridiculous. He knew we would balk and ask why:
I’m supposed to love a mass murderer, Jesus? Really? I’m supposed to pray for a racist bully? You’ve got to be kidding. You want me to empathize with participants in a system that oppresses and sometimes kills my people? That’s a bridge too far. You want me to let uninformed opinions and fear-based intolerance roll off my back? But Jesus, the future of our nation hangs in the balance. And that person in church who annoys me to no end? Come on.
And so Jesus offers explanations, incentives, and the example of his own life.
“So that,” he says.
Love your enemies so thatanger and bitterness won’t eat you alive. Love your enemies so thatyou might be delivered from the prison of us-them thinking. Love your enemies so that you might let down your defenses and allow yourself to be loved. Love your enemies so that the faults you project onto others might be healed within yourself. Love your enemies so that we might all step back from the brink of civil meltdown.
And just how do we do that, Jesus?
Well, he says, prayer would be a good place to start.
Pray for those who persecute you so thatyour heart might be softened. Pray for those who disagree with you and call you names so that you might come to understand just how much they’re like you: wounded, frightened, precious, hungry for love, and usually doing the best they can. Pray for them so that, siblings all, we might love one another out of this dangerous, divisive mess.
Praying for our enemies flips the script, providing a way out of the you hit me-I hit you back loop. Praying for our enemies, trying even to love them, makes it less likely that we will follow the eye-for-an-eye course, leaving the whole world blind. Praying for our enemies reveals the shadowy enemy places within ourselves, the logs within our own eyes, and invites us to love them, too.
Now I don’t generally think of Twitter as place of healing and light. Twitter is one of those social-media platforms that, 140 characters at a time, can really escalate the name-calling and finger-pointing. But at least once last week, someone on Twitter flipped the script and changed the narrative.
Shortly after Donald Trump officially accepted the Republican Party nomination for president, Zoe Kazan, a self-described “registered Democrat & a Hillary supporter” with 25,000 Twitter followers who is “pro-choice & pro-gun control,” re-Tweeted a Clinton campaign meme encouraging people to stop Trump from winning the White House.
Then a stranger, a man named Rocco whose profile photo shows him with two young children, responded this way: “Trump will win and toss you into the gutter where you belong.”
“Normally,” Zoe said later, “I would have blocked him, or sent him something cutting & then blocked him. But for some reason . . . I didn’t block him. I wrote this:
“Your children look beautiful. I hope your life is happy & that the anger you directed at others doesn’t return to you.”
Now she probably didn’t feel love for this man; there’s no indication she was literally praying for him.But her response flipped the script and stopped the hate. It opened the door for an “us” and a “them” to recognize their common humanity.
Rocco responded to her this way: “Please accept my apologies. This election turned me into someone I’m not. I just want the best for all . . . I worry for the future of my grandchildren. I’m afraid where the future of the USA will go”
And Zoe responded to him: “I understand & share your worries. We just have different political opinions, that’s all. Apology happily accepted. I wish you well”
“This was a good reminder for me,” Zoe said later. “We are all human. We are all worried. Worry turns easily to anger. This election could turn us all into people we don’t recognize. So. Even in my extreme fear at what might happen in November, I will make an effort to remain kind.” 1
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker also flipped the script. Asked on CNN to respond to a negative, threatening Tweet from Donald Trump, here’s some of what he said:
"I love Donald Trump. I don’t want to answer his hate with hate. I’m going to answer it with love. I’m not going to answer his darkness with darkness."
Booker is quite clear about his opposition to Trump’s candidacy. But the same time, he says: “I love you Donald. I pray for you. I hope that you find some kindness in your heart, that you’re not going to be somebody that spews out insults to your political opposition, that you’re going to find some way to love. I love you. I just don’t want [you] to be my president.” 2
Kind of makes you wonder if Sen. Booker has been reading the Sermon on the Mount—or Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
“Outdo one another in showing honor,” Paul says. “So far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. … Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.”
In other words: Flip the script. Break the cycle. Turn the other cheek. Love your enemy.
Or, as First Lady Michelle Obama puts it: “When they go low, we go high.”
No, nobody—not even Jesus—said it would be easy. That’s another reason we have to pray—for strength, for grace, and that our own hearts will be changed. As Paul makes clear, life in Christ—becoming a new creation—is not magic. It is not a walk in the park. It requires attention and intention; it demands action; it moves us to extend forgiveness, kindness, and the benefit of the doubt to all. It calls us to listen and seek to understand. It involves praying without ceasing (and no small amount of tongue-biting).
I am reminded of the two women from Charleston Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church who spoke at last week’s convention. One was a survivor of last year’s racist Bible-study murders and the other lost her son to the killings. Do you know that they said?
“I choose love.”
This enemy-love thing is a choice. It is a leap of faith and trust. It is a way of life. It is something we must practice—day after day, hour after hour. And even then, it is not easy.
But it is the only thing that will save us—from division and distrust, from anger and bitterness (and the indigestion and depression that come with them). Love is the only thing that will save us from the illusion that our lives matter more than others, from the fear that others are out to get us, from the kinds of violence that kill African Americans and police officers at home, women and children abroad, and, in the past, more than 100,000 people at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Love is the only thing that will flip the script.
Yes, these are trying, even scary, times. Yes, the outcome is uncertain. But, be not afraid, beloveds, for our way forward is clear: It is the way of Jesus, the path of love, the practice of prayer. Together, with Spirit’s power and God’s grace, we can do this.
Please join me after worship on August 28 for the first gathering of the “For Such a Time as This” prayer group, and we’ll begin doing it together.
Until then, hear this prayer from poet and prophet Wendell Berry:
"I know that I have life
only insofar as I have love.
I have no love
except it comes from Thee.
Help me, please, to carry
this candle against the wind.”