Epiphany 7: February 24, 2019
Year C, Genesis 45:3-1, 15; Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40; 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50; Luke 6:27-38
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If ever there were three words in the gospel that presented a huge problem, I think “love your enemies”, are they.
On the face of it this is an outlandish thing to say. Enemies are, practically by definition, people you can’t love.
I am quite certain that even when Jesus spoke these words two thousand years ago that this was a difficult, if not impossible, command.
Today, I’m going to challenge all of you – challenge myself and say that we can assume Jesus was saying exactly what he meant. We should not try to persuade ourselves that Jesus was guilty of hyperbole here, perhaps overdoing it to make a point or set a ridiculously high standard. There’s no, “nice idea, Jesus, but you cannot honestly expect me to love ‘so and so.’”
So and so might be a political leader whose views about compassion are radically different from our own. It might be a rapist whose face is splashed in the local newspapers; it might be the drunken driver who killed a bicyclist; it might be the guy who held up at her job at gunpoint and whose seven-year-old reads about it in the newspaper; it might be a family member who wounded us decades ago, and we remember the incident as if it were yesterday; it might be a friend who betrayed us.
I can hear the negotiation with Jesus. “Okay, I agree that loving my enemies is a laudable goal, and I promise that I will strive to achieve it.” Would we really hold up our end of the bargain? Would we really try to love our enemies?
Most of us probably think that what Jesus says in today’s Gospel is unrealistic or even a bit soft-headed. Turning the other cheek is usually a way to get the other side of you smacked, right?
But think of Christ’s own love for us, for those who have been referred to as the “beloved community”. The whole of Christ’s mission, God’s manifestation among us, was to reveal who God is and what the beloved community can become. As followers of Christ, are we not to believe that God can and does transform us, can and does give us the power to love others as we want to be loved, can and does give us the power to love our enemies?
It’s for that reason that I believe we cannot dismiss this command as hyperbole; we cannot say that Jesus was merely exaggerating to make a point. Though I am often wont to say that we must not take Scripture literally, I believe that Jesus meant these words quite literally. He meant what he said.
These words of Jesus unsettle us. Indeed, they have unsettled many a Christian, including preachers as esteemed as Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet, in one of his earliest public sermons more than sixty years ago, Dr. King said that “love is key to the solution of the problems which we confront in the world today – love, even for enemies”.
It’s a lovely prescription that Jesus has given us, but really, why should we love our enemies?
First, it is about the kind of love that Jesus refers to – that Dr. King preached about. It is not the eros or romantic love, or the philia meaning brotherly love or friendly love, which literally is the foundation of the name of Philadelphia. The love we are being called to is unconditional love that God gives to us.
Let’s also think beyond the kind of love that Jesus is talking about to what happens when we hate – think about the cycle of self-destruction and hate. Hate does nothing but intensify the existence of hate and evil in the world. If I hit you and you hit back, and I hit you back and you hit me back, the process goes on ad-infinitum. Both of us are defeated through mutual destruction.
Somewhere along the way somebody must be strong enough to stand up and refuse to hit back because the more we hate the more we strengthen the existence of hate – in our country, in the world around us.
Somewhere along the way, someone must change what in today’s parlance we would call the “cycle of abuse.”
Here is the dilemma. Thousands of years of human history lets us know that the command Jesus has given in today’s Gospel is radical and counterintuitive. How do we move from the natural instinct to match blow for blow and word for word?
To put it another way, how do we live our lives responding with grace and kindness, instead of reacting with words or actions that seek to answer hurt with more hurt?
According to Luke, Jesus indicates that followers of Christ remember how God responds to us. “Be merciful,” Jesus states, “just as the Father is merciful. Do not judge and you will not be judged; do not condemn and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”
Well, where are we to find examples of that kind of forgiveness?
Examples are powerful.
I recently read a book called The Lost Daughter: A Memoir by Mary Luana Williams. Known as “Luana” or “Lulu” she went to live with the actress Jane Fonda and her family, in 1981, when she was 14. Up to that point in her life, Lulu was raised in a violent, dysfunctional home in East Oakland, CA.
It was thirty years before she returned to East Oakland and saw her birth mother. Could she change the images she had of her family, the violence and dysfunction? Could she put into action what the Gospel today is calling all of us to do?
There were many false starts for Luana in her journey to reconnect with her birth mother and the rest of her family. There wasn’t a fairytale ending with her biological mother, yet the way she ends the book is what resonated with me as I thought about today’s readings: “…I can honestly say that I love her and respect her and that I need her presence in my life. Our differences, our fears, our fights won’t run me off like last time. And so where one road ends, another begins.”
Where on road ends, another begins. Jesus is asking us to take another road. The admonition in Luke to love even our enemies is not just a good idea where we try our best to make it happen. The call of Luke is to live in a way contrary to our own human inclinations, a way that is possible only as we live into a model of love, of mercy shown to us by God.
The commitment to agape means that every single human being, regardless of their language, their color, their county or origin, their income, their education, deserves our love. Loving our enemies means we are to live as if the bigotry, fear, stereotypes and hateful “isms” that separate us from one another are no more. We are to live as if compassion, not condemnation, justice not judgment, and righteousness not self-righteousness are the watchwords of our lives.
If we are to commit to being disciples in our community, it requires some measure of courage. To forgive, to not judge, to not condemn those who hate us is only plausible and possible because Christ is our strength.
To “love our enemies” means to take our baptismal vows seriously. Our worldview, if Christian, if Episcopalian, must be based on the respect and dignity of each person even when giving that respect and dignity is not the way of the world. Those are the times that we must be bold enough to make them the way of our world and our living.
Is it too hard for ordinary Christians? In a word. No. It does mean we have to be honest about our own fears and seek to forgive and believe in the Gospel daily.
 Luke 6:35, New Revised Standard Version
 Luke 6:36-37
 Williams, Mary. The Lost Daughter (p. 299). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition
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