Sunday, February 24, 2019
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies.” How shocking that must have been for the crowds who heard Jesus say these words so many centuries ago. Yet, for us today, it isn’t any less shocking. Loving your enemies is not an easy thing to hear or act on. So, the first thing we need to ask ourselves is who is an enemy? The dictionary describes an enemy as a person who is actively opposed or hostile to someone or something. An enemy is a person or thing that harms or weakens something else. An enemy is an adversary, one who works against us, inhibits us, and who keeps us from being all we were created to be. No one wants to have an enemy or be an enemy. No one wants to be hurt or be beaten down. Yet, enemies exist real or imagined.
Fear, prejudice, guilt, shame, resentment…these are some of our biggest enemies. And the truth is that these enemies reside within all of us. Yes, we ourselves, can be the biggest enemy. Everyone, at one time or another, has been their own worst enemy. We put ourselves down for our perceived failures. We ridicule ourselves for being less than we know we can be. We say things to ourselves that we would never say to anyone else. Or we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are better than others. Either way, we are being the enemy. We are holding ourselves back from all that God created us to be. And when we do this our perception of others is altered as well. So often, the thing we hate or judge in someone else is the very thing we struggle with ourselves.
While it’s true that the crowds that heard Jesus first speak these words were most likely thinking of their oppressors like the Roman government as enemies, and the people and places that didn’t follow their own customs and religious beliefs like the Samaritans for example, but Jesus was trying to get them to understand on a deeper level that the enemy is a lot closer. And even those who have themselves been abused – through no fault of their own – at some point end up hurting themselves more because of self-blame because it has become internalized. Thomas Merton, in his book New Seeds of Contemplation, says, “Instead of hating the people you think are war-makers, hate the appetites and disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed – but hate these things in yourself, not another.” Jesus challenges us to go even further. He challenges us to overcome hate with love, and that begins with loving ourselves first. This is not a narcissistic self-love, but a real love that comes from embracing who we are as beloved children of God. We were each created in God’s image, and made to be bearers of God’s divine light. Yet, along the way we have forgotten this. And more times than not, we focus on the perceived darkness in everyone else, which diminishes not only their light but our own as well.
What if we took Jesus’ words to heart? What if we truly listened to these words he spoke on the plain? What if we loved our embraced the enemy? What would that look like? It requires thinking in a new way. Jesus said, “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.” This may seem that Jesus is advocating for us to be doormats, and allow people to abuse us. But Walter Wink, in his books The Powers That Be, and Engaging the Powers, explains more about the culture of the day in which Jesus spoke these words.
If I hit with my right hand—it lands on your left cheek. I could hit with my left hand and land on your right cheek but in the Middle East left hands are saved for unclean actions With my right hand to your right cheek, I have to back hand slap you, and back hand slaps were to insult or humiliate an inferior person. They were never done to an equal. So by turning the other cheek, a person was causing the one about to hit them to have to use the right hand against the left check requiring an open hand or fist meaning they would be acknowledging that person as an equal. And by giving someone your shirt as well as your coat would mean you were left standing in front of the person half naked. The person viewing your nakedness in that culture would be shamed the most. It was a way of saying, here, “You want my coat, take everything!” So what Jesus was challenging people was to not only stop seeing themselves as victims, but to stand up to their oppressors in a powerful non-violent way. When we change the way we look at things, things begin to change. Our perception makes all the difference.
Loving our enemy enough to allow transformation to happen first must take place within ourselves. We must see and acknowledge the enemies within ourselves – fear, prejudice, judgement – realize they are there, embrace them for what they are, and let them go. Once we rid ourselves from the enemies that hold us back, and accept that we are beloved children of God, then we can see others in a different way. Through self-forgiveness we are freed to forgive others as well. By focusing on being bearers of God’s light and love in the world rather than focusing on the darkness we add more light to the world.
As this season of Epiphany draws to a close, may we be open to feel and experience God’s transforming grace and mercy that transforms enemies and brings true peace. Amen.