Text: Matthew 5:43-48
In this season of Lent, we have been looking at the theme of “Give It Up” - considering beliefs and habits and behaviors that we would be better off without. And it has not been easy going. “Give Up Impressing People.” “Give Up Worrying.” “Give Up Going It Alone.” All very difficult. It would be a heck of a lot easier to just give up Doritos for the 40 days of Lent and be done with it.
And then this morning, Jesus would have us consider another nearly impossible choice: give up enemies.
Our text is from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus’ ethical demands are so hard that commentators through the ages have tried to make it more palatable. Some have looked at Jesus’ teachings as ethical ideals. We won’t live up to them, of course, but at least they are something to shoot for. Others have argued that Jesus sets the bar so high that his teaching is actually designed to drive us to despair – to help us realize the impossibility of satisfying God’s righteousness and help us to recognize our complete dependence on God’s grace.
But there is no evidence that the early church understood Jesus’ teaching in this way. And just reading the passage, one doesn’t get the feeling that Jesus is playing with his listeners. It comes across as though he really meant this. We really are asked to love our enemies.
Jesus’ words raise a few questions for us, the first and simplest being – who is my enemy? Who are we talking about here?
You know, we live in an enemy-rich environment, don’t we? It is very easy to find enemies, and especially enemies of the nameless, faceless, generalized sort.
When I started college, there were quite a few Iranian students at my school. By and large, they were great people. Shirooz was in pre-med and was a goofy, fun-loving guy. I was in a religion class with Muhammad, a very endearing Shia Muslim from Iran. It was a small seminar class and we all made presentations about some aspect of our own religious tradition. There was another Iranian guy I knew who drove a DeLorean – if you remember the car in Back to the Future, that’s a DeLorean. But one day, everything changed. Protesters in Iran overran the American Embassy and took everyone hostage. And suddenly, people like Shirooz and Muhammad and the guy with the DeLorean were hated enemies. Somebody fired a bullet through the apartment window of an Iranian student on campus. Today, lots of folks consider Iranians as our enemies. They are enemies by virtue of being on the wrong team.
There are national enemies, but those are far from the only people who are enemies by virtue of being the other or the outsider. Those who have the wrong political convictions or live in the wrong place or have the wrong ancestry may be thought of as enemies.
Fred Craddock died this past week. He was very influential in preaching circles because rather than taking the stance of “I am going to reveal the truth to you in 3 points with a nice poem to wrap it up,” Craddock looked at the way that scripture itself spoke to us, and it generally isn’t like those three point sermons at all. Instead, Craddock used story and narrative and an inductive approach that made the sermon come alive and allowed listeners to make connections and figure things out for themselves.
Craddock came from dirt-poor beginnings in East Tennessee and while he was a very learned scholar, he could connect with anybody. In retirement he helped start a church in the rural community where he lived in Georgia, as well as starting a center that helped fight poverty in that area and did wonderful work. I never met him, but through his books and sermons and influence on people I learned from, he influenced me, and I was saddened to hear of his loss.
This past week, the president of one of the Southern Baptist seminaries chose to criticize Craddock. In fact, on the day of his funeral, he said that Craddock had damaged the state of preaching in this country by devaluing the authority of scripture and the authority of preaching. I disagreed, of course - as far as I was concerned, Craddock elevated the place of preaching and engagement with scripture and the role of the Spirit, as well as respect for the congregation. What he had devalued, perhaps, were self-important preachers who want to claim authority for themselves. But even more than what this person said, the fact that he chose to criticize this humble and beloved man on the day of his funeral was just plain tacky. I was offended and I can’t imagine how this would have felt to his family.
I know that it has something to do with my own upbringing, but it is hard for me not to see fundamentalists like this seminary president as the enemy.
We all have enemies. Maybe you don’t think of people quite in those terms, but what we are talking about is those who have hurt you, excluded you, dismissed you, talked bad about you. We are talking about the person who is always unkind to you and you have no idea why. We are talking about the neighbor who you would pay good money to have them move to New Jersey. We are talking about those whose lives stand completely against the things you hold dear. This is not to mention the whole category of “frienemies,” those friends that you can’t really trust and who are likely to hurt you or betray you at the drop of a hat.
Maybe you are not inclined to think of yourself as having enemies, or maybe on further review you can think of an enemy or three. Maybe a bigger question is, “How do we love people like this? How do we actually love our enemies?”
We need to say right away that loving someone does not necessarily mean liking them. What we are talking about is getting to a place in your heart where you do not bear them ill will. My seminary ethics professor Henlee Barnette, God rest his soul, talked about love as “willing the well-being of the other.” That’s a good way to understand it: wanting the best for the other, wishing them well.
Maybe a starting point is to keep this idea of loving our enemies before us. We get all kinds of reinforcement for hating our enemies – not so much for loving them. Martin Luther King Jr. preached a sermon in 1957 on “Loving Our Enemies.” Here was a person with serious enemies – people who threatened him people who wanted him dead. And yet he knew how important this was. King said that he tried to preach on loving our enemies to his congregation at least once a year – it was that important. He was 28 years old, but he understood that Christian faith was about loving everyone, even our enemies.
We often think of this idea of loving your enemies as a Jesus thing, a New Testament thing, and it is one of the distinctive teachings of Jesus. But there are roots in the Old Testament. Our reading from Exodus says that if you see your enemy’s donkey or ox wandering off, bring it back. If your enemy’s animal is in trouble, help it. When there is an opportunity to do good for the one you hate, do good. That can be a place to start. Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Getting to a place where you can pray for your enemies can be a place to start.
A couple of years ago, Chick-Fil-A owner Dan Cathy was very public in his opposition to marriage equality, and LGBT activists found that his company had contributed large amounts of money to anti-LGBT causes. So Campus Pride, a national organization for gay and lesbian college students and their allies, started a boycott of Chick-Fil-A. It became a highly publicized campaign. Some picketed Chick-Fil-A’s while others flocked to the restaurant to show their support for the company’s position.
In the middle of the controversy, Dan Cathy made a phone call to Shane Windmeyer, the national director of Campus Pride. Windmeyer was surprised by the call and quite suspicious, but that first conversation lasted an hour. It led to other conversations and emails and text messages and in the coming weeks to in-person meetings. Neither changed their beliefs, but they both changed the way they viewed the other. Cathy had been naïve about the situation faced by gay and lesbian students on campuses and how the organizations he had supported made that worse. Windmeyer came with stereotypes about Dan Cathy and found these stereotypes to be completely wrong, finding him to be always kind and genuinely interested in his viewpoint. Their interactions were sometimes a little awkward but always respectful. In time they got to know one another on a personal level, sharing about their lives and their families, and then Dan Cathy invited Shane Windmeyer to be his guest at the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, one of the college football bowl games.
Both were kind of stunned to find themselves in this position. And this was a big risk for both. Windmeyer’s colleagues might have thought he was being played by this billionaire entrepreneur. Dan Cathy might have faced the ire of his conservative base – and maybe even a boycott from that side - for welcoming a gay activist to his luxury box.
Neither changed their basic convictions, but both were able to see the other not as an enemy or as an opponent, but as a person with opposing views – and there is a big difference. Both were able to better understand the other. Chick-Fil-A continues to donate millions in grants to organizations that focus on youth, education, marriage enrichment and local communities, but no longer contributes to the most divisive anti-gay groups. They made this change months before LGBT activists knew about it, and it was not done in exchange for anything. Campus Pride dropped their boycott of Chick-Fil-A. And Dan Cathy and Shane Windmeyer gave up an enemy.
It is a rare thing, but these two very different people gave a great example of how to love one’s enemies.
It is not easy, and more often than not, you are not going to be going to a bowl game with your enemy, but getting to know and seeking to understand the one you call enemy is a good starting point. I will sometimes remind myself that the most hateful people are not very happy and have generally been on the receiving end of hatred themselves, and while this does not excuse behavior it can maybe be a starting place toward loving one’s enemy – or at least praying for them.
This leaves us with one more question. Why? Why should we bother? Why would we even want to love our enemies?
In Martin Luther King’s sermon on loving your enemy, he told the story of traveling with his brother late one night. It seemed like every car they passed had its bright lights on and didn’t dim the lights. King’s brother was getting angry about it and said, “The next car that doesn’t dim its lights, I’m going to turn my brights on for them.” King said that if everybody had their brights on, nobody would be able to see and there would likely be a collision.
He compared this to hating others. Somebody has to have sense enough to dim the lights. If we don’t, he wrote, “We will all end up destroyed because nobody had any sense on the highway of history. Somewhere somebody must have some sense. (We) must see that... hate begets hate… and it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody. Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. And you do that by love.
Another reason to give up enemies is that carrying hatred in our hearts affects us. When we limit the scope of our love for others – when we limit those whom we wish well – it does something to us. It diminishes us. It makes our hearts smaller. Holding on to hatred gnaws away at who we are. The other night I saw Don Lemon on CNN interviewing a Klu Klux Klan leader. The recent incident with the fraternity in Oklahoma and the ongoing protests and shooting this week in Ferguson have proven to be recruiting opportunities for the Klan. I’m not sure why they even tried to interview this man, because he was so filled with hatred that it was hard to even have a conversation. Hate had completely eaten him up. For our own sakes, Jesus says, love everybody – even your enemies. Which is a way of saying, give up having enemies. Refuse to put people in that category; refuse to let relationships be defined by hatred.
We are to love our enemies because love has a transforming power. Hubert Humphrey was a former vice-president of the United States. When he died, leaders from all over the world attended the funeral. This was not very long after Watergate. Former President Richard Nixon was there for the funeral, but it was like he was toxic. Eyes turned away and conversations ran dry around him. Nixon could feel the ostracism surrounding him.
Then Jimmy Carter, who was then president, walked into the room. Carter was from a different political party and in many ways was elected as the anti-Nixon. As President Carter started toward his seat he noticed Richard Nixon standing all alone. Carter immediately changed course, walked over to Richard Nixon, held out his hand, smiled broadly, and embraced Nixon, saying “Welcome home, Mr. President! Welcome home!”
The incident was reported by Newsweek magazine, which wrote: “If there was a turning point in Nixon’s long ordeal in the wilderness, it was that moment and that gesture of love and compassion.”
We are called to love our enemies because it makes a difference in us, and it can make a difference in them. And even more, we are to love our enemies because this is the nature of God. “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This sounds like the most impossible task of all. How can we be perfect? What this refers to is being complete – essentially, let your love be all-encompassing, as God’s love is all-encompassing. Of course, that is not exactly easy either, but Jesus is calling us to give up enemies, give up hatred, give up getting even, and be filled with God’s love that reaches out to all, wanting the best for everyone – even our enemies. That kind of love is a miracle – a miracle that God wants to work in our hearts. Amen.