Epiphany 7, Year A
February 23, 2014
All Saints’ Church
May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.
These past few weeks we’ve been listening to sections of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount series. But rather than the comforting words of the Beatitudes (“Blessed are the peacemakers,” etc.), we’ve been hearing an awful lot of challenging words come out of Jesus’ mouth. Two weeks ago it was about evangelism and being a light to others, last week it was about being in right relationship with each other and with God, and this week we are told to love our enemies.
Jesus doesn’t say, “tolerate your enemies” or even simply “try to be nice to them.” No, Jesus tells us to love them. Think about an enemy from either your past or your present: maybe it’s a bully or someone who betrayed your trust or caused you pain in some way [pause]. Jesus is telling you to love them and pray for them.
I don’t know about you, but I find this to be one of the most difficult things Jesus tells us to do. Now, I want to be clear that when Jesus tells us to love our enemies he is not condoning any acts of violence that have committed. Neither is he telling us that we have to like them as a person. Rather, he is telling us to let go of the toxic feelings that hate brings. There are some people from my past who just thinking about things they did or said to me makes my blood boil and my teeth clench to this day. But in reacting this way, I am giving them power over me; I am still under their grip! Bottling up the collective anger and hurt from over the years does us no good. And even if we had gotten even with our enemies (“an eye for an eye”), the feeling of satisfaction would not make up for the pain we experienced. And so Jesus tells us to love them and pray for them.
A few years ago one of my friends was having difficulty getting along with someone. Since they lived in the same area and saw each other often, my friend decided that instead of complaining about the person or stewing about the unpleasant situation, she would try to do something about it. As luck would have it, the season of Lent was right around the corner, so my friend made it her Lenten spiritual practice to pray for this person every single day. Throughout the 40 days she kept up this practice of praying for this person she found so difficult to be around. When Easter came, my friend and this person had not magically become best friends, but my friend was able to be in the same room with the person without wanting to scream, so that was a major improvement. More than this, though, my friend had come to a deeper appreciation of who this person was as a beloved child of God.
Another one of my friends was preparing for a month-long trip. She and a fellow traveler got into a huge argument in the weeks leading up to the trip. Wanting to have a good traveling experience, my friend called the other traveler to address their issues. In listening to one another, they discovered that their argument had resulted because of a series of miscommunications; once they figured out what the other person had actually meant, the hard feelings evaporated, and they were able to enjoy their trip, even becoming pretty good friends by the end. Imagine what they would have missed out on if they hadn’t addressed their issues!
These two examples are pretty mild ones, but they illustrate how prayer and intentional, honest, and open communication can sometimes be pathways to loving our enemies.
The reading from Leviticus presents a different way of thinking about loving: “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). In this case, we’re not talking specifically about enemies (although sometimes our neighbors can fit that description); neighbor means anyone outside of your family circle. So often we can be tempted to stay away from anyone who acts or looks or speaks or dresses differently than we do. In this country we frequently isolate ourselves, surrounding ourselves with people who look and vote and believe the same way we do, just because it’s safer or easier than opening up to someone new (there’s less risk involved).
But I actually find that in many cases our biggest enemy is, in fact, ourselves. All of us experience times when we feel inadequate, overwhelmed by self-doubt and uncertain if we are up to the tasks before us. When the constant internal monologue turns into a negative stream of thinking, it can keep us rooted in a place of fear rather than of love.
One of the best examples of loving your neighbor as yourself happened in 2006. On an October morning in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, a man approached an Amish school. He sent away all adults and boys, barricading himself in the school with 10 girls as hostage. Two sisters figured out what he was doing and tried to convince the man to shoot them and let the other girls go. Police tried to intervene, but the man shot all of the girls before ending his own life. Four of the girls were killed. To this day, the motives of the man, who was not Amish, are unclear. But the Amish, deeply steeped in their faith, recognized that they must immediately respond to this neighbor with love and not vengeance. Just a few hours after the shooting, members of the community went to the man’s house to comfort his widow and family, one of them embracing the man’s father for an hour as the father cried. Thirty community members attended the man’s funeral, and his widow was invited to attend one of the funerals for one of the girls. What’s more, they even set up a fund to help the man’s widow take care of their three young children.
Love like this can only come from a place rooted in peace and the practice of loving your neighbor as yourself. We root ourselves by coming together to pray for the world, our neighbors, and our enemies. We root ourselves by reading and then incorporating into our daily lives the tough lessons Jesus teaches us. We root ourselves by passing the peace and then joining our neighbors around the Eucharistic table, sharing together in the Body and Blood of Christ that propels us into the world. In these ways, we invite God to dwell in us.
Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, tells us that we “are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in [us]” (1 Cor 3:16). If our “foundation is Jesus Christ,” and “God’s Spirit dwells in us,” then perhaps, over time, we can learn to love our enemies, neighbors, and ourselves (1 Cor 3:15-16).
Image found here.
Info about the Amish school shooting found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amish_school_shooting