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Sermon: Love Your Enemies

Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on Feb. 23, 2014.

7th Sunday after Epiphany, Year A (RCL): Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5: 38-48.

Enemies come in all shapes and sizes, and we all have them.

         They could be someone at work or in school; perhaps one who gossips about you, avoids you, or ignores you; maybe someone who stole from your business or from you personally; a competitor who doesn’t fight fair; a boss who makes your life difficult; a man or woman who abused or injured you; a colleague who turned on you; family or friends who have mocked you for your beliefs or affiliation; a popular group that doesn’t include you; the boyfriend or girlfriend that broke up with you; a partner who left you; or a parent who deserted you.

          Yes, enemies come in all shapes and sizes, and we all have them.

          Today we hear the most amazing, and perhaps, most troubling, section of Jesus’ great Sermon on the Mount. In Verse 43 of Matthew’s Gospel, he says, “You have heard that it was said: ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ Now that wasn’t a quote from the Old Testament. It might have been the local rabbis’ teaching, having interpreted scripture, but it isn’t actually in the Old Testament. Instead, Jesus goes on to say that this is the true character of our God. This is the fulfillment of God’s Commandment. Jesus says, “But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...”

I don’t know about you, but my first reaction to an enemy is to fight back, to retaliate, to my get revenge, to hurt them in some way, or at least to avoid them and have nothing else to do with them. I might need to cross to the other side of the street as they approach, or refuse to sit next to them, or maybe gossip about them to others.

          But Jesus challenges us, both me and you. If we are to be disciples of Jesus Christ, and we have an enemy, we must love them.

Here at Immanuel, we take Jesus’ words seriously, believing his words speak Truth. We don’t hear some of his harder sayings and sometimes think see they are outdated, impractical, or maybe unrealistic. If we are to respond as if we are truly his disciples, we must obey ALL that he commanded us to do. Even this.

          So what does Jesus mean, ‘Love your enemies?’

First, consider what it doesn’t mean. We shouldn’t pretend that our enemies are really our friends. I won’t overlook what they’ve done, or rationalize their behavior as being really okay. When called to love our enemies, we shouldn’t ignore acts of injustice or unrighteousness. We can’t look blindly at those wrongs, or pretend that consequences aren’t valid. Loving our enemies does not mean that we should be pushovers or doormats for people to run all over us, or to do what they ask or say, all while they tell us ‘Aren’t you supposed to love me?’

No, the Bible tells us to resist and stand firm against the schemes of the Evil One. From our own sinful nature, many acts committed against us or that we commit against others, are immoral. We must combat evil in our world. That’s what Jesus did in the courts when he resisted the chief priests. Loving our enemy does not mean turning a blind eye or a deaf ear to evil and injustice and pain. It’s not letting people get away with crimes of society. Nor is it is tolerating abuse from others. Somehow, when we do fight for justice, we must tie that in with loving our enemies.

So what does Jesus mean ‘love our enemies?’ Throughout the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel, as well as in Luke’s account, Jesus gets real! He gives us very practical ways about loving our enemies. He knows that it’s tricky, and confusing, and challenging. So in Verse 44, first we are to pray for those who persecute us. No, we do not pray peril or disease upon them. It means that we pray as Jesus taught us to pray. Using the prayer our Lord gave us; “Our Father, who art in heaven ...”   God, I pray that my enemy might also come to know you as their God. “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done." I pray that your Kingdom will be revealed to them in this situation, that your righteousness, your holiness, and your mercy will bless my enemy also. “Forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” God, I am sinful, imperfect, and broken. Please forgive me for anything I have done, but Lord help me also to forgive my enemies for what they have done, to me or others.

          Praying for our enemies helps us to see them as God sees them, and wipes clean the anger and bitterness from our hearts. But it isn’t just prayer. In Luke 6:27, the other account of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Do good to those who hate you.” We are to love our enemies, not just by praying for them in secret, but by extending our love to them through our actions also. In Public. Out there. It means offering them forgiveness, even when they don’t ask for it. It calls us to be the ones who seek reconciliation, even when they are not reaching out for it. It means doing practical acts of love, even if they seem undeserving.

          I don’t know about you, but I do love doing good to those I like. A friend of mine likes to say, “It’s nice to be nice to the nice.” If it's a VTS schoolmate or clergy colleague I’m fond of, I might call to help them think through a sermon or how to address a pastoral matter. If I really like them, I give my time freely to be with them, for them. Well, Jesus says we need to do the same for our enemies.

In Luke 6:28, Jesus calls us to love our enemies also with our words. Jesus says, “Bless those who curse you.” So instead of receiving an insult and knocking one back at our opposition, when we receive a curse or an insult, we should respond with a blessing. Our comeback could be a compliment. We can retaliate by showing them encouragement. We should always find something positive to say.

          Overall, Jesus asks us to love our enemies as He has loved us. St. Paul wrote in Ephesians that we are to be imitators of God and to live a life of love just as Christ loves us. You remember that before he became Paul, Saul persecuted followers of The Way before his transforming moment on that road to Damascus. Saul was sinful then as we are sinners now, but Christ still loved him and always loves us - unconditionally, abundantly, and authentically. We are called to love our enemies in that same way.

          But, you probably think, as did I, THIS IS CRAZY! Why is Jesus asking me to do this? What good could possibly come from loving our enemies as Christ loved us?

          Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who certainly knew enemies in his life, preached on this very passage, giving us three reasons that we are to love our enemies. First, he said, ‘Returning hate for hate only multiplies hate’... “adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.” “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Dr. King added that hate is self-destructive, scarring our souls like “an unchecked cancer” which ‘corrodes and destroys.’ Finally, he said ‘Loving our enemy is the only force capable of transforming that enemy into a friend.’ These are three good reasons, and this is a remarkable statement in its own right, but especially when put into context. Dr. King was both exhorting and comforting his followers, knowing the violence they would face from enemies who wielded billy clubs, unleashed vicious dogs, and used water cannons to beat them down and drive them back.

          However, in our passage today, Jesus goes further to give us two more reasons to love our enemies. In verses 44-45, Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies ... that you may be children of your heavenly Father.’ “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Jesus doesn’t say love like this to then be counted among the children of God. Rather he says, you are children of God -- LOVE as God loves. Be imitators of your Father in heaven. God loves us all, undeserving as we are - and we should do likewise. Jesus continues, that when we love in this way, we truly reflect God’s love. It is only when we live and love this way that we begin to mirror the light of Christ to push back the darkness in this world.

          You know as well as I do that it is easy to love the lovable. It is convenient to be friends with the friendly. And yes, it is “nice to be nice to the nice.” But this is not God’s kind of love. God’s way is not our way. And God’s thoughts are higher, and different, than our thoughts.

          In his book The Magnificent Defeat, Frederick Buechner writes about Four Loves. “The love for equals is a human thing - of friend for friend, brother for brother. It is to love what is loving and lovely. The world smiles. The love for the less fortunate is a beautiful thing - the love for those who suffer, for those who are poor, the sick, the failures, the unlovely. This is compassion, and it touches the heart of the world. The love for the more fortunate is a rare thing - to love those who succeed where we fail, to rejoice without envy with those who rejoice, the love of the poor for the rich, of the black man for the white man. The world is always bewildered by its saints. And then there is the love for the enemy - love for the one who does not love you but mocks, threatens, and inflicts pain. The tortured’s love for the torturer. This is God’s love. It conquers the world.”

Dear Friends, we are called to be beacons of God’s Love, not the love of this world. We are called to reflect the love God has shown us, and the love to which He calls us in this passage. This love is radical Love. It is not committed to loving the lovable, but to loving our torturers, with our words, and actions, and prayers. We shouldn’t turn a blind eye to any wrong or injustice. We should stand firm against evil in this world. But we push back the darkness of this world with the love of God, invoking the name of Jesus Christ.

          Like everything else, this begins here at home. It begins within the Church. There may be enemies even here. My friends, if that is the case, there is no doubt what you are called to do. Love them. Seek through love to resolve conflict quickly and completely; to reconcile graciously. Be authentic and honest with how we feel. Refuse to gossip and instead say to others how we have been hurt. Love abundantly even those who hurt you. As a parish church, we are called to shine our love into this community of Alexandria and beyond. We should commit to shining God’s light in this world - a love for the unlovable, a love for our enemies.

          So how do we do it? Well, speaking for myself, I first look at my own heart ... and I sigh. I fear can’t do it! I’m afraid my heart at times is too callous, too scarred, and too bitter. But here’s where Christ comes in, not only as our example, but also as our means through which we can love ALL others.

          We can love our enemies because we ourselves have experienced that unmerited, sacrificial love of Jesus Christ, knowing just how undeserving we really are. We can love our enemies when we lay down our hurts, hates, bitterness, and fear at the foot of the Cross and seek Christ’s healing. We can love our enemies when we see through Christ’s eyes how he sees our enemies ... as other children of God. Remember who is God and who we are not. Leave those feelings of seeking justice behind, and judge not. Let Jesus be the perfect judge of all.

          So who are our enemies today? Do we still carry grudges? Are we saddled with bitterness? Do we feel justified in not loving them? Wherever they are, whoever they are, we are called, No, we are COMMANDED, to love them. “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The commandment to be perfect in the same way our Father is perfect is to be seen in this context of love. God and Jesus call us to wholeness. This perfect love is without discrimination; our love is to be open to all people, friends and enemies. Love them. Just do it.