The Rev. Dr. Mary Abrams
Feb. 24, 2019
Those of you who know me know that I love to preach about love. The two great commandments: Love God and love your neighbor. It sounds easy. We like to love on one another. We like to give to and help those who have less than we do.
I have been known to say that the whole Bible can be boiled down to this one word. LOVE. It’s a word we can understand. It is easy and practical. But it is dangerous to attempt to summarize the Bible with one word. We need to hear all that Jesus said, not pass over the difficult statements. The difficult statements are the ones that we not only NEED to hear but we need to focus on, reflect on and their implications to our lives.
Today’s Gospel reading is one of those passages that we need to hear and to hear over and over again. It is one we need to spend time with and to work to understand how we can meet Jesus’ expectations for us.
Jesus begins with “I say to you who are willing to hear.” He is challenging us to hear his message. He knows that what he is about to say will be difficult, and that we don’t want to hear it. Jesus knows that only those who are truly willing to listen to his words are the ones who will truly try to follow them.
And then Jesus said, "Love your enemies." He says it not only once but repeats it again a few verses later. "But love your enemies; do good and lend, expecting nothing in return." This is where the Love thing gets hard, very hard, seemingly at times impossible.
When I hear the word enemy I think of war, fighting our enemies. But this passage calls for a broader definition of the word. Jesus includes those people we wouldn’t normally call enemy. He is speaking of those who have hurt us or who have hurt someone we love. Through broken relationships, those that have bullied, ridiculed or disrespected us, those that have taken something from us, a loved one, our belongings or our position in our job or society, those who sit on the opposite side of the political isle.
It is a natural instinct to help those who help you and hurt those who hurt you. I was in a fourth grade classroom once to discuss the Golden Rule, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I started by asking the students if anyone could state the Golden Rule. One little girl raised her hand and told the class that the golden rule was to “Do unto others as they do unto you”. My first reaction was shock. How had she learned this corruption of the Golden Rule. What a negative view for such a small child. Then I just felt sadness because I realized that that is how the world operates. It is simple justice, the law of the people in Jesus’ time was an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and in many ways it seems that it still is.
Jesus came to tell us that our natural instincts are not the behavior that will make up the Kingdom of God. Instead of an eye for an eye we are to love our enemies. Do good to those who do us wrong. Jesus goes on to add that we are to be generous and loving expecting nothing in return.
In fact, he said (if we are willing to hear), “If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended?” That is easy to do. Everyone can do that. What is the reward in that? But loving our enemies, and following the Golden Rule it’s so counter-cultural that we may not be willing to hear.
If I love my enemy, I will let down my guard, and the enemy may win. If I love my enemy, that enemy may threaten the well-being of my community or my family. If I am not a “winner,” will those who depend on me suffer too? If I give my coat away, I may be cold. Who will give me a coat when I need it? If I give my coat away, what will I give my child when she gets cold? If I lend money to someone who has no job and no prospect of paying me back, will I still be able to support myself in my retirement? If I turn my other cheek after being struck, how badly will I be wounded? Will I lose my position in society because I am shamed?
We may have opposing values here; loving our enemy on one hand and providing for and protecting our selves and our family on the other.
Are we willing to hear? Jesus asks us to “be compassionate just as God is compassionate.” Jesus' words about turning the other cheek and giving up your shirt along with your coat seem demeaning. It may sound like Jesus is telling us to be quiet, to keep taking it. But he isn't calling for us to roll over and play dead!
Jesus is telling us to find new ways to resist evil. Don’t strike back; but ”Love your enemies," "do good to those who do you wrong." This is what Martin Luther King, Jr., did when he knelt down before water hoses and snarling police dogs. Many people thought he was crazy. "Only violence can fight violence," “Only hatred can fight hatred” they told him. But the authorities and the oppressors didn't know what to do with his kind of resistance. They knew the power of violence; they knew the powerlessness of victims who knew their place, but this was something they hadn't seen before: victims who refused to be victims, victims who refused to fight back with violence, victims who claimed their place and changed the battle completely.
Loving our enemy, loving those who hate us or who have wronged us or have hurt those we love, it feels impossible to do. Joseph, who we read about today in Genesis, is a good example of loving those who have hurt you. His brothers had sold him into slavery and one might expect him to want revenge when he gets a chance. But instead, he welcomed them with loving arms and provided for them when they needed his help years later.
Do you remember Matthew Shephard? Matthew was brutally beaten for being gay, beaten because one man felt that Matthew had made a pass at him. The man felt foolish and unmanly and so he got a friend to help him put the young college student in his place. The two of them beat Matthew over and over again. Then they tied him to a fence on a country road and left him alone in the freezing night. By the time someone found him the next morning and got him to the hospital, there was no way to save him and Matthew Shepherd died.
The two men who killed Matthew were arrested, tried, and convicted of the brutal hate crime. Proven guilty of first-degree murder, they could have received the death penalty in the state of Wyoming. But Matthew's mother came before the judge. She asked the judge to spare the lives of these guilty men who had taken her son from her.
I cannot imagine what she went through in all the agonizing months leading up to and during the trial? What mother could sleep with images of her beloved son tied to a fence, beaten and alone through the cold night?
"Love your enemies," Jesus said, "do good to those who hate you." Matthew's mother’s own life reflected the gospel message that is deeper than hatred, stronger than revenge. I would like to think that i could do what she did but don't know that I could. But she serves as a witness to the power of this gospel message. This kind of love may not be easy, but it can change the world.
In 2006 a man entered the one room schoolhouse in an Amish community. He made the teachers and boys leave and took the little girls hostage. Before the horrific incident was over he had shot eight of the young girls, killing five of them.
As tragic as that story was, another story emerged that captured the attention of the world. The Amish community didn’t cast blame, they didn’t point fingers, they didn’t hold a press conference. Instead, they reached out with grace and compassion toward the killer’s family.
On the day of the shooting, a grandfather of one of the murdered girls was heard warning his fellow Amish friends not to hate the killer, saying, "We must not think evil of this man.” Another Amish father said that the killer was a man who had a mother, a wife and a soul and now he's standing before a just God.” Forgiveness is a deeply rooted value in the Amish community and children are taught this value from the beginning.
Very few of us, if any, have had to face anything as horrific as Matthew Shepherd’s Mother or as the Amish community. Forgiving should be easy for us as our hurts pale in comparison to theirs. So how CAN we who have not been raised as the Amish with forgiveness as a basic value, (how can we) learn to love those who have hurt us. How can we who have lived more with the values of vengeance and revenge toward those who have hurt us, (how can we) become more like Joseph and Matthew Shepherd’s Mother and practice giving grace and compassion.
To learn to live into this gospel that Jesus preached, we must learn to be compassionate with everyone. Compassion is to feel the passion of another person and to join with them in that passion. Loving compassion begins with seeing and hearing those who are different from us. Those who look different, who believe differently, those who behave differently. We have to truly see others and truly hear them before we can began to understand them and to have compassion. When we hear and see those who have hurt us or those who are different from us, those who sit on the other side of the isle, when we learn their struggles, and their fears, then and only then can we join them in their pain and their passion? That is compassion. When we gain understanding then we can reach out in love, not control. Perhaps most importantly, we can then extend compassionate love, not in order to get something back, but simply because that is the gospel message. “But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies.”