Seventh Sunday after Epiphany; February 19, 2017, Year A
Leviticus 19.1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119.33-40; 1 Cor. 3.10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5.38-48
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace and peace to you from the One who bids us to love our enemies, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
To begin this morning, I’m going to say a few stereotypes, or categories that people are placed into. And what I want you to notice is your gut reaction when I say a category:
ISIS Old people Pro-life
Liberals Ku Klux Klan Muslims
Murderer Refugee Inmate
Republican Protestor Conservatives
Immigrant Rapist Well-fare recipient
Pro-choice The rich Democrat
Police Teenager Whites
(Idea from James Bailey’s book, Contrast Community, p. 80)
This list could go on forever. These Scripture passages this morning, yet again, challenge us to examine ourselves. To take the time to really think about who we consider a neighbor, who we consider an enemy, and who, when we think about them, raises up within us the inability to understand where they or coming from, or even recognize the emotion of anger and hate.
Jesus’ teachings these last 3 weeks perhaps even challenge us to wonder why we even attempt to follow him. What Jesus has to say to us today may be his most radical yet: “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Like last week, the “you” is plural. “All of you together are to love your enemies, all of you together are to pray for those who persecute you.”
Loving our enemies seems like a nice idea, or crazy of course, but how many of us have actually tried to love someone in whom our initial reaction towards them is that of hate, or anger, or lack of understanding? And what if I’m the object of someone else’s hate? What if I’m the enemy?
To clarify, the kind of love Jesus is talking about is not the kind in which we feel all this affection. It has nothing to do with emotion, but has everything to do with action. To love is not how I feel about someone, but rather how I act towards them.
Let me give you a few examples. Last March at a Donald Trump rally a white man, named John McGraw, age 79, elbowed a 27 year-old black man, named Rakeem Jones, in the face for shouting at Trump.
As Rakeem was being escorted out of the rally by police McGraw yelled, “We don’t know if he’s ISIS. We don’t know who he is. The next time we see him, we might have to kill him.” The next day McGraw was arrested and faced two misdemeanor charges of assault and battery, and disorderly conduct.
When the two went to court nine months later they saw one another for the first time. At the end of the trial the judge asked McGraw if there was anything he’d like to say to Rekeem. He said, “I’m extremely sorry this happened.” He took a step towards Rakeem. “We got caught up in a political mess today,” he said. His jaw began to tremble. “And you and me, we got to heal our country.”
“All right man,” Rakeem said after a moment. They reached out to one another shook hands and eventually embraced in a hug. McGraw backed up and said one more thing, “We’ve got to stick together. We can’t let them come between us (The Week Magazine, January 13, 2017, pp. 40-41).”
Another example. For nearly a century now, Israelis and Palestinians have been fighting in the same land. Many people have died or have been driven from their homes, mostly Palestinians. People live in fear every day. There is a peace group that has formed made up of parents who have lost children in the fighting. These are Israeli parents who have lost children to Palestinian militants, and Palestinian parents who have lost children to Israeli occupying soldiers.
These parents could have retaliated, demanded and “eye for an eye,” but instead, they have come together in their grief to say, “no more.” They have come together to share the stories of their children and to begin to see the other, not as an enemy, but as a fellow human being who has suffered just as much pain as them.
Another group in the holy land is called “Women Wage Peace.” It is made up of Jews and Arabs, both Muslim and Christian. On Oct. 19th of last year, nearly 20,000 women marched for peace and demanded there be an agreement between Israel and Palestine. At the march a story was told by a Muslim teacher of her experience of Israel’s 2014 war with Hamas, which killed 72 Israelis and over 2,000 Palestinians who live in the Gaza Strip.
She said that “Jewish and Arab neighbors stopped speaking to each other.” But, when warning sirens went off indicating incoming rockets the teacher found herself comforting a Jewish woman, a complete stranger, and one could even say, “enemy,” on the street. She said, “She was crying and shouting, she needed someone to hold her, so I did. I didn’t know her, but it didn’t matter. We are all brothers and sisters (The Christian Century, December 7, 2016, p. 16).”
One more example is from the Amish. In October 2006, a man named Charlie walked into a school and shot ten young Amish girls, killing five before he killed himself. Terri Roberts was Charlie’s mother. She couldn’t believe what her son had done and decided that she and her husband would need to leave the town. But, that evening some Amish people came to their home and told them they wanted them to stay. When they had Charlie’s funeral, some of the victim’s family members attended. A mother and father who had lost 2 daughters in the shooting were the first to greet Terri and her husband. Now for years, Terri had taken care of the most seriously wounded girl every Thursday. (http://www.cbsnews.com/news/mother-of-amish-school-shooter-shares-amazing-story-of-forgiveness/)
All of these stories do not contain super human people, but ordinary people like you and me who have found the strength to love their enemy. Anyone who considers themselves a victim has a choice of how to respond to a wrong done to them. When we get hurt, our natural reaction is to hurt back. Jesus holds his followers to a higher standard, calling us to be different in the world. Jesus warns us that violence only leads to more violence.
A psychologist conducted an experiment with 10 people to prove this very point. “Ten volunteers were blindfolded and positioned in a circle.” A flexible rod was given to one of the people in the circle who was told to hit the person in front of him. “Once this was done, the rod was passed on to the second person, who had just been struck by it. That person was then told to hit the third person as hard as he had been hit. In turn, the third person hit the fourth and so on.” The experiment had to be stopped because as the rod was passed the intensity of the striking became dangerous.
The psychologist concluded: “When we humans are hurt and then strike out towards another person, we tend to increase the force of the blow (Contrast Community, James Bailey, pp. 67-68).” This is why retaliation escalates the violence, even between warring groups and nations.
Jesus knew this, which is why he instructs those who follow him to a different way: “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile, etc.”
These phrases need some explanation. First, to turn the other cheek does not mean to let someone beat and abuse you. Jesus would never want or ask this of anyone. There have been people who have stayed in abusive relationships because of this verse. There have been clergy who have told wives to stay with their abusive husbands because of this text. This is a wrong interpretation of what Jesus is saying.
The right cheek is an important detail. To strike someone on the right cheek was to hit someone backhanded. It was meant to be an insult, not meant to hurt. So, to turn the other cheek communicated to that person, “Now hit me as an equal.” James Bailey writes: “For the offender to strike again would reveal that person as vulgar and uncivilized (Bailey, p. 64).”
Jesus is speaking about two men, not a man towards a woman, or an adult to a child. To keep taking abuse or keep giving it is not what Jesus means. That is wrong. Jesus invites his followers to have the courage to not strike back, but to expose the person’s own violence in hopes that it will stop with them.
As far as the coat is concerned, Jesus is speaking about a court case. Most likely it would be a rich person demanding from a poor man his coat, more than likely to pay an unjust debt. If the poor man were to give him his tunic as well, it would expose the rich man’s greed. This is a way Jesus invites his followers to fight injustice, not to just roll over and take it.
Also, to go the extra mile is an act of resistance. The Jews were occupied by the Romans and were often forced to carry their gear. What Jesus is talking about is “service demanded of someone by an official or soldier with power to enforce it … If a Jewish man was forced to carry a soldier’s gear for a mile, his natural reaction would have been to grit his teeth and hate every step.” To alter the power dynamics one would go a second mile.
James Bailey again writes: “His cheerfully going a second mile might cause the soldier to reflect on the practice of forced labor or embarrass him by calling into question his strength to carry his own equipment … “In the face of insult and injustice, they do not simply become passive victims but act in imaginative ways, without submitting to their impulses to seek revenge or resort to violence (Bailey, p. 64-66).”
Jesus makes it clear that God sends rain and makes the run to rise on both the evil and the good. I hope we can hear this as good news for all of us, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Even when we don’t deserve it God gives us rain, food, clothing, shelter, forgiveness, unconditional love, and eternal life.
I know that loving our enemies very well may be one of most difficult things we will ever do, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to do it. If we only love those who love us, how are we different than anyone else in the world? Paul reminds us: “all belong to you all, and you all belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.” Let us not let one another forget this.