[Given in response to Matthew 5:38-48.]
Our reading is relatively tame this week so I’m thankful for that. “Love your enemies.” That’s difficult but I preached last week, too, in Ohio, and last week the text said “pluck your eye out, cut your hand off.” Sometimes you’re all excited to fill the pulpit somewhere until you look at the lectionary reading. “pluck your eye out; cut your hand off.” Really, Jesus? I’m supposed to give a nice sermon and that’s what I get to work with.
I pieced something together, though, and it went fairly well. It was a little bit different because I was preaching for an Episcopal church. So there’s a bit more pomp and ceremony. I wore a robe for the first time and at the beginning I processed down the main aisle of this old cruciform church, made of stone of course and it has great stained glass and paintings on the walls. The priest and I walk in behind two other people, both wearing robes, as well. One of them carries a Bible and the other carries a cross on a long stick. (That’s probably not the official name for that item.)
I thought probably the most interesting difference was that when it comes time for the New Testament reading everyone stands. Their parish priest stands in the middle of the church to read the passage and everyone else stands along with her as she’s reading. I thought that was great because it’s a way of signifying these aren’t just the words of Jesus or Paul or the people who wrote the Gospels. This is our gospel. We all sign onto this.
And we do, of course, we do sign onto the gospel. It’s just that sometimes the gospel needs some explaining. Last week we all stood up to say “this is our gospel” and then we heard “pluck your eyeball out.” My friend had suggested, jokingly, that I just preach the passage as is. But I’d imagine that particular message typically doesn’t go over terribly well. And I wanted to be invited back so I did what all preachers do. I explained that Jesus in this case is exaggerating, or joking, or doing anything at all besides being serious. He doesn’t actually want you to do those things. Not that very many church people would take it literally but we explain it anyway. Then after you’ve given some sort of explanation as to why it shouldn’t be heard as a straightforward recommendation you give the sermon.
And we could do something similar today. I think most people would be fine with that. “Love your enemies” is a tall order. It’s more advisable than last week’s reading but its not exactly conventional wisdom either. So we might want to qualify it, add some exceptions and caveats. Love your enemies, yes, but you know love can mean any number of things. Love your enemies but only in this context or that context. Or you say, It’s a good ideal but in the real world we have to be more pragmatic. I imagine it’s probably safer to treat the passage that way.
But today I feel compelled, I don’t know why exactly, but I feel compelled to simply offer up the words of Jesus as is, in their most obvious plain, literal sense. “Love your enemies.” Enemies meaning, well, just enemies. I take it you’ve had an enemy at some point. Maybe because you decided it was so or maybe you tried to avoid the whole thing but they were dead-set on being your enemy. I won’t deny that some people are inexplicably mean. So you’re likely to collect a few enemies along the way, even if you’re generally a nice person.
“Love your enemies.” Love meaning, well, just love. I know the word has multiple meanings. You can set aside any erotic connotations but keep the other meanings. I mean love in the sense you use the word when you’re talking about people you actually love–friends, family, community. That means you can’t sidestep the whole thing by using one of those phrases with that includes the word “love” but is actually about something else. Like how the “tough love” often puts such a strong accent on toughness that it’s likely to turn callous before resembling anything like love. And there’s that terrible phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin.” You’re not fooling anyone with that one. Especially not anyone in this congregation.
“Love your enemies.” I just want to raise the possibility. Love meaning love. Enemies meaning enemies. Only those words, Jesus’ words, and no caveats or equivocation.
I felt compelled to at least offer that as a possibility. And I felt compelled not because I’m in some way unaware of all the reasons you wouldn’t want, maybe even couldn’t want to hear it that way. I know I’d prefer not to hear it that way, and I can’t claim to understand these words much better than anyone else. It does sound nice in theory, but I’ve said before that some advice is too good, too moral. I’ll follow it someday, not now. Because I know just as you know that trying to love our enemies isn’t likely to win us anything. Sometimes we like to think that if we love our enemies they’ll melt into a puddle of emotion and from then on we’ll be buddies. Maybe. Probably more likely is that you try to love your enemies and they think you’re joking. Or you try to love your enemies and they’ll see it as weakness, use it as a chance to harm you emotionally, physically. Loving your enemies might work out well but it also could get you killed. I really mean that.
But I still felt compelled to simply state it: Love your enemies. And I think I have a decent guess as to why Jesus might’ve said something like that. If you’ll permit me a short detour I can explain. It’s because we, as Christians, are monotheists. We speak of one God, one God for the whole world. And if you’re going to say something like that then you need also to affirm that all of the other people around are children of God, too. So “love your enemies” because they were one of God’s kids long before they were your enemy. And I know that some monotheists are always trying to claim that they know God better or more truly than anyone else, and they try to use that knowledge to justify their hatred or violence for others. And they quote scripture, too, they can find some ammunition for that position, certainly the Bible contains it’s fair share of violence. Well, you can read it that way if you’re determined to, but the Biblical witness as I know it testifies most clearly and consistently to the sort of God who would tell us to love our enemies. Our tradition is meant to describe one God with all of humanity as God’s family, and a global set of ethics in light of that claim.
For example, do you remember the story of Jonah? You’re thinking, “that’s the magical whale story.” That’s part of it, yes. But listen again. God tells Jonah to go to Ninevah and to preach to the Ninevites. Ninevah is opulent, violent, idolatrous. Ninevah represents everything that Jonah’s people reject and Ninevah would crush his people if they got the chance. Bad, bad people, the Ninevites. These are Jonah’s enemies. God tells Jonah I want you to go preach warning and judgment to Ninevah, which sounds like a halfway decent mission, actually. Go tell your enemies, those unrepentant sinners that God’s judgment is on its way. Say that God, your God, the One you worship but the God of the whole creation as well, is angry, tired of your wickedness, in a mood for punishment.
Jonah says, “No thank you.” He runs away and there’s the boat and the storm, the magical whale and three days in the belly of the whale. Then the whale spits him up on the shore and God says, “Let’s try this again.” Jonah says, “fine.”
He treks to Ninevah and starts preaching God’s judgment. “You keep it up and the city’s going to fall. 40 more days, I’m warning you”. The text says he cries out, he yells all of that. But I don’t imagine he’s able to enjoy it like you’d think he would, remember he didn’t want to go, so he’s yelling but maybe without conviction. “Repent, or else.”
And then a funny thing happens He preaches the warning and the judgment and then all of the Ninevites start repenting. All of them. Word spreads even to the king and the king decrees the repentance. Everyone’s already repenting but now repentance is the law of the land. “We won’t tolerate Ninevites who refuse to repent to God, Jonah’s God.” God is convinced so God calls off the 40 day countdown he told Jonah to set into motion.
And Jonah, he says to God in so many words, “I knew you’d do that. You can’t help yourself when it comes to doling out mercy.” And then he pouts. Jonah runs off to pout because he knew this would happen, he didn’t want to go in the first place. He says “I know you’re a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” And he knew at some level that God, his own God but the God of the rest of the world, too, would grant mercy even to the Ninevites, his enemies.
Well, anyhow, that’s the God who came to mind as I was studying the text for today. Jonah’s God, the God of Jesus, our God, too. One God for all of us–gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love, even for our enemies. That’s the God I believe in so I felt compelled to say those words of Jesus without qualification.