So, it’s March Madness right now! Now, I’m not super into basketball, but as I understand it, this is the time every year when all of us here at Beaver Memorial get together and fill out brackets and compete for world domination. This is the first year I’ve ever filled out a bracket. And, I don’t want to brag, but on Friday evening when I finished writing this sermon, the Pastor-of-Disaster was in first place. One thing I don’t really appreciate though is that, when the individual who set up the Beaver Bracket was inputting information, he put as the group motto: “Don’t let the new pastor win!” Now, I wish I could just let this go. You all know that. You all know I don’t relish throwing people under the bus. But I can’t just let this go – I don’t make the rules. And I don’t want to name names, but it was Bryan Langdon who made this bracket. And, in case you’re not sure where Bryan is in this picture I took the liberty of highlighting him – he’s the guy chugging this beer right here. And where was Bryan ranking on this bracket on Friday night? All the way down here in 10th place. It’s fine, Bryan – I’ll just attribute this to your drinking problem.
Anyway, sports are kind of a weird phenomenon, right? It incites this kind of competitive rivalry between us. And there are some teams that have been enemies for a long time. Growing up in St. Louis, the most obvious example of this was the Cardinals and Cubs. We absolutely loved seeing the Cubs lose. But when they won the world series a few years back, I think St. Louis folks were just as excited as Chicago people were because, though they were our rivals, we still loved them and part of us wanted to see them be successful. This is a tiny, little, arbitrary microcosm of what our passage is about this morning. We will have rivals and enemies, but that doesn’t mean we’re exempt from loving them, praying for them, wishing the best for them. Because if we don’t, we’ve missed the gospel altogether.
Now, as our passage begins, we have, as expected, this formula we talked about a couple weeks ago: “You have heard it said…” and “But I say to you…” And Jesus starts out by saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ Now, what Jesus is referencing here, the thing that people ‘have heard’, is found in Leviticus 19:18: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” This takes care of the first part of our verse – people hearing that they should “love their neighbor”, but the second part is a bit more interesting because it actually doesn’t show up in the OT like the commandment to love your neighbor does. It’s really more of an implication – if you love your neighbors then, obviously, you’ll hate your enemies. This was probably the prevailing culture at the time. And my question here is, has anything really changed?
Because if we look at the news; if we look at social media; if we look at our text messages and emails, it seems like this is still what’s going on today. And it’s hard for us not to get stuck in this pattern. When we see white nationalists using semi-automatic rifles to gun down our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters, when a denominational body declares you or your loved ones as “incompatible with Christian teaching”, when there is hate being thrown back and forth on both sides of the political aisle, it’s hard not to get caught up in this. But, for those of us that are Christians, we can’t shake the words of Jesus that come around in the next couple verses of this passage: “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
Remember what I said a couple weeks ago: Jesus has the tendency to take something and radicalize it. And here, Jesus does that to two ideas: neighbor and love. In the context of Leviticus 19, the idea of loving your neighbor implies loving one of your own kin or one of your own tribe – it doesn’t have a universal scope. It’s necessarily an inward-turning, exclusive, protectionist concept in the law Jesus is referencing. And those within that inner circle are the ones you love and those outside that inner circle are the ones you don’t love, and now we’re talking about politics, right? I mean, how tribal has our current political landscape become? If you’re a democrat, anyone who’s not a democrat is evil. If you’re a republican, anyone who’s not a republican is evil. We’ve bought into Leviticus 19 just as much as any of the ancient Israelites did. But, if we’re to take the words of Jesus seriously, we first have to acknowledge that we’ve chosen hate over love.
And what’s even worse is we’ve often chosen hate over love for really bad reasons – if someone doesn’t agree with us, if someone makes a snide remark toward us, if someone is different from us in faith or political conviction, we often choose hate over love. And if we’re moved to hate over love by something as trivial as that, then what hope do we have when something tragic actually happens in our lives?
I came across this video earlier this week of a man named Farid Ahmed. He’s a survivor of the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand last week. Farid is in a wheelchair, so he couldn’t flee when the shootings started. But his wife helped several others escape, and she was killed when she ran back into the mosque to save him. I think hearing him tell his story would be really helpful is illustrating the point Jesus is trying to make in our passage.
Mr. Ahmed, whether he knows it or not, is a better Christian than most of us here in this sanctuary today – myself included. Anyone who can go through the experience of having dozens of their friends and loved ones gunned down by a white supremacist, including their spouse, and express forgiveness and love for the killer in the immediate aftermath is someone who worships the same God I do. I don’t care if their title for that God is Jesus or Allah or YHWH. The indiscriminate love this man has shown to his enemy is the same indiscriminate love we’re called to as Christians because we’re called, as our passage says, to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. God allows the sun to shine on both the righteous and unrighteous; he sends rain onto the fields of the righteous and unrighteous. If we’re to be disciples of this God, we need to be willing to do the same because the other side of this coin leads only to destruction – both of our enemies and ourselves.
Martin Luther King Jr. preached a brilliant sermon on this same text in 1957. And something from that sermon has always stuck with me: “Hate destroys the very structure of the personality of the hater…Hate at any point is a cancer that gnaws away at the very vital center of your life and your existence. It is like eroding acid that eats away the best and the objective center of your life. So, Jesus says love, because hate destroys the hater as well as the hated.” The cost of hate is a price that’s way too high to pay. Not only is your enemy lost in the process, but you end up getting lost too. And it profits us nothing to gain some fleeting moment of satisfaction by hating someone if our souls get lost in the process.
Now, at this point, some of you may be wondering: “What if I don’t have any enemies? What if I’m on board with everyone?” Listen – there’s a difference between being loving and being nice. Pastor Daniel at St. Paul’s, one of my best friends, likes to say that Methodists occupy the extreme middle. We just want to make everyone happy; we want to be all things to all people. And as a denomination, that’s one of our biggest problems. There’s a difference between loving and accepting someone & loving and accepting their ideas and beliefs and whatever else.
Farid Ahmed loves the man who killed his wife; I guarantee he doesn’t love that man’s beliefs, though. And because we, as people, have an extraordinary tendency to conflate people with their ideas, there will always be people on the opposite side of the battlefield. There will always be people who buy into white supremacy and islamophobia; there will always be people who think the separation of children from their parents at the US-Mexico border is a completely moral thing to do; there will always be people who think that young women who are systematically sexualized and raped are somehow “asking for it”. Now, we’re called to love those people, but it doesn’t mean they’re not above being rebuked and corrected. That’s what Jesus is saying – yes, there will be enemies – there will be people who need to be challenged and corrected in their beliefs and ideas -- but we’re also to consider them as neighbors in our love for them. Sometimes people are a both/and – both an enemy and a neighbor.
So, in a way, if there aren’t “enemies” in your life – if you’re fine having a faith that never cuts or convicts anybody of anything– then you’re not even paying attention. You’re not even taking your faith seriously because Jesus chooses sides. We can’t live life on a fence. We have to take sides. We have to come down on issues. If we, both as individuals and as a church, don’t have enemies to love then it means who we are and what we believe has become bland and uninteresting and boring. And at that point it’s no longer the Christian faith anyway. Christianity is anything but bland and uninteresting and boring. The story of a first century Jewish peasant named Jesus who turned the world upside down by revolting against structures of power and oppression, radically rethinking his Jewish tradition, offering love and acceptance and rebuke and conviction, to everyone -- tax collectors & sinners, Pharisees & scribes, sex workers & poor people – there’s nothing about that that’s bland and uninteresting and boring so if that’s the shape this faith ultimately takes it’s unequivocally our fault.
And the thing is, when this happens – when our faith becomes stale and stationary -- it often happens gradually, over time, without our realizing it. It’s easy to get stuck on the easy path. It’s easy to only love people who love you. It’s not so easy to love the people who don’t love you back. It’s easy to love your BFF, but it’s not so easy to love the stranger. But the fact that it’s difficult is a pretty good indicator that it’s what we’re actually supposed to be doing. Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden is light but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s fun to carry a cross, and it definitely doesn’t mean it’s fun to forgive the people who are nailing you to it.
There was a great theologian from the 20th century named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Some of you have probably heard of Bonhoeffer before. He’s most well-known for being a pastor who led a group of Christians’ failed assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler during World War II. He was eventually hanged in Germany’s death camps, but one of his most famous quotes is this: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” That’s what we do every time we love an enemy; that’s what we do in baptism; that’s what we do when we pick up our cross. We die to ourselves and our interests and live, instead, for God alone. And we never stop being called to this. We’re called to it when we’re young little tykes in elementary school and we’re called to it in adulthood. We’re called to it in good times and in bad times.
My prayer for you all, as we continue through this Lenten season, is that you always come back to this idea of love; that you refuse to let yourself off the hook, especially when the going gets tough. You’ve been called to a life outside the bounds of expectation. You’ve been called, not just to love, but to love indiscriminately, to love haphazardly, to love recklessly even when it hurts. If all of us did that, if the entire Church did that – if we actually leaned into that calling of love, if we actually embraced our death and resurrection in baptism– then there would only be one possible outcome, and that is revolution. I’ll leave it there until next week. Let’s pray.