Sermon: Love Your Enemies

This is a sermon that I delivered on 03/05/2013. It is not academically cited or proofread for academic purposes. If you have questions about this, please contact me here.

Sermon Title: Love Your Enemies
Primary Scripture Reference: Matthew 5: 38-48

Our Gospel reading this morning is about loving your enemies. Our Old Testament reading today is about loving your neighbors – even the ones who don’t shovel their parking spot out, then use yours. As I prepared to write my sermon, I decided that ‘loving your enemies’ might be easier to deal with.

As we think of the phrase “love your enemies”, we may be confusing the love that Christ calls us to employ, with the romantic love that you might find in romantic comedies, where quirky people discover that they’re long lost soul mates, and become best friends forever.

And so this distinction that we’ve set up – this boundary that prohibits us from imagining enemies in a loving way – might become impossible.

When we imagine our enemies, I am willing to bet that you don’t necessarily imagine a single person, you might imagine a group of people. At least, that’s my problem. As I’ve hashed and hashed this scripture passage out, I kept trying to imagine who my enemy is. I might imagine those who would like to deny me civil rights, or those who would work against my own ordination – but then, it’s difficult to imagine one face.

On Friday, I saw a person driving a truck with a sticker on the back that said “hate your enemies”. I immediately felt sad for that person, because they must really be harboring some pain, if that’s the mantra they repeat over and over. Perhaps they gather people up, who’ve affronted them, and they remember and dwell on those people, waiting for an opportunity to lash out when the time is right.

I was having some difficulty with some of the worlds in our scripture reading. The first word of which, is enemy. I wanted to know if there was some clever Biblical insight from the original Greek, that might help us to understand what Jesus was trying to convey with the word “enemy”. First, I went to my etymology dictionary, that sort of breaks up the word, and helps us to understand its history. In English, the word “enemy” comes from the ninth century, and it originally means “foe, demon, the devil”. Prior to that, it came from a latin-portuguese word in, which means not, and amare, which means to love. Not to love. So far, the definitions we have are “the devil” and “not to love”

But the Greek translation is even more interesting. “Enemy” in Koine Greek, is actually two words: ekthron sou. εχθρον σου. Now, the “sou” by itself, mean’s your or thy. It’s a pronoun. The “ekthron” by itself, means “hatred”. Only together, “thy hatred”, does it make sense as “enemy”.

So what I’m discovering here, “not to love” and “your hatred”, is that one’s enemy has very little to do with another person. One’s enemy is all about one’s own perceptions.

So when I’m thinking about “those people” who are working against my ordination, for example, and I think of them as my enemy, or my hatred, I’m realizing that their status as an enemy is entirely within me. I’ve realized that I spend a lot of time praying and even dwelling on a group of people that I think of as “those people”. My life’s work is important to me, and I believe that I’m responding to God’s call. But when my anger wells up about people without faces, its taking a toll on me, not them.

But then again, think of that person whose bumper sticker says to “hate your enemies”. Surely they don’t realize that their bumper sticker is ironic, meaning “hate your hatred”. But in all seriousness, what happened in their life, that empowers them to see the world through a lens of hatred?

In my advanced age, I’ve come to realize that life is complicated.

As I was thinking about this Gospel text, I was having a conversation with a pastor friend from a nearby town. He told me that these Biblical passages make him think of the phrase “hate thy neighbor”. You see, many in his congregation remember this area differently from the way it was in the past. Without a doubt, things in Allentown have changed from 25, 50, or 75 years ago. But, whether or not there is truly a change in inter-personal dynamics, or whether we just see the world differently when we are children, makes no difference. We, as people, are very good at cultivating enemies in our minds.

This past week, a man in Florida was found guilty of murdering a young, African American man. The facts surrounding the case, of course, are skewed. Apparently, though, the young man who died was named Jordan Davis. He was at a gas station, and he was playing his music very loud. Michael Dunn, who shot Jordan Davis, had apparently asked Davis to turn his music down, a request that the young man did not comply with. While in prison, there are recordings of Michael Dunn speaking about how he “hates that thug music”, and other racist euphemisms.

Perhaps this euphemism wouldn’t stick out to me so much, if we didn’t just come through a fiasco in which the well educated, well spoken, compassionate Richard Sherman wasn’t referred to as a “thug” during his post victory bravado.

Nonetheless, I wonder if Michael Dunn, an adult, Caucasian American, software designer, murdered Jordan Davis, a young, African American man, because Jordan Davis as finally a face for Dunn’s anger, for his “thy hatred”?

Again, whether or not things today are more or less violent, more or less ethical, more or less cultured than they were 25, 50, or 75 years ago, makes no difference whatsoever. What does matter is that Micahel Dunn probably feels like he’s been systematically beaten up, that he feels like his government has no interest in protecting his rights, and that he’s probably feeling pretty isolated in this world. When the object of his hatred is personified, he acts. Surely, each of us can empathize with Michael Dunn, even ask we acknowledge “thou shalt not murder”.

Is this why our Church today has a difficult time with loving our enemies?

In no uncertain terms, our scripture today is:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

Jesus commands that we love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us, but we Christians, in many circles, are known as among the largest purveyors of hatred in the world. Right now, in Central African Republic, Christians are systematically murdering Muslims. Now, are the Christians murdering the Muslims, because the Muslims have also systematically murdered Christians in other parts of Africa? Of course. Does that make the situation anywhere close to being ethical? No way.
What might Jesus have told Michael Dunn, as he became enraged by this loud, “thug” music, blaring from a nearby speaker? Based on this scripture, my imagination says that Jesus would say, “Go, my child Michael, and turn up that music for them, and while you’re at it, dance.”

What might Jesus say to these murderous Christians in Central African Republic? Well, first he would say “Stop it!” and then he would probably encourage us take the muslims food, and medical care, and hugs.

Because when Christ reminds us to love thine enemies, he’s really reminding us to love thy hatred until its healed. He’s reminding us that hatred comes from within, not from the so-called other.

Jesus Christ is reminding us that when others mocked, slandered, and were so challenged by his teaching and life, that he was willing to be crucified for them, with the full knowledge that he would be resurrected, a far more beautiful thing. When we nail earthly foolishness to the cross, we discover Divine wisdom, understanding, and insight.

Sisters and brothers, I do not mean to say that there is no evil in the world. There is so much evil in the world, and it deserves to be the object of our hatred. But what is evil, except the failure to recognize the humanity of another?

I firmly believe that Adolph Hitler and Saddam Hussein are just as likely enjoying the bliss of Heaven as my beloved Grandmothers are. Hitler and Hussein were ego-maniacal sociopaths who were responsible for the death of thousands. But deep down, they were deeply troubled people. They practiced evil, but were not our enemies. What happened in their lives, that made them unwilling to recognize the humanity, worth, and love of the people who took the burden of their hatred?

The thing that makes me most likely to erupt into aggressive anger, and even dare I say, swearing – is driving on 22 or the Schuylkill Expressway. After praying about it, I’ve discovered that a car is such an easy place for me to become angry with other people, because I’m totally isolated, in my own little world, and only concerned for my own schedule and driving habits. Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote that, when someone cuts us off, we should make a little sign of the cross. Of course, he’s pulling a fast one on us, because while we think we are blessing that other driver, who cut us off, we are really reminding ourselves that that other driver is also a child of God who does not deserve the strange fruit of your suffering.

Now, our Gospel text today also use another word I had a difficult time with. Jesus says to “be perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect.” How on earth are we to be perfect? I know the phrase “practice makes perfect”, but I’m also wise enough to know that I’ll likely forget to practice during the day.

The Greek word used here is actually “telos”, which means fulfillment, or completion. So, from Jesus’ perspective, perfection is when the Kingdom of God is fully realized both in heaven AND on earth. Of course, it took a masters degree for me to become comfortable with the idea that perfection looks differently, to different people.

My assumption here, is that one day, in all eternity, we will sing in perfect harmony, to God our Savior’s praise. But in the present, may our perfection, our completion, our fulfillment be measured by how well we seek reconciliation; not only with the enemy within, but also with the children of God who are also fighting their own enemies.