Seventh Sunday After Epiphany
“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Ps 19:14)
Last year was the 150th anniversary of publication of the book Little Women. I had never read the book, but sometimes I feel obligated to read a classic. So I’m now in the process of reading Little Women.
It's my nighttime read. Usually Sharon will go to bed before me. I'll get into bed quietly, ready to read my book quietly, but for an unknown reason I'll start singing "Little women walking down the street." Guess that ruins all the quiet for Sharon who is trying to sleep.
I remember on the television show Friends that Joey almost cried when he heard about the death of one of the daughters. Last weekend I heard an interview on the radio and the woman was comparing herself to the high-spirited, independent daughter. Sharon and I were sitting in the tavern of the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge and the bartender’s favourite book is Little Women.
Plus, as a pastor I appreciate that Little Women intentionally tries to teach important moral lessons. And one of the most difficult lessons is the same one we’re talking about today: “Love your enemies.”
In Little Women, one of Mrs. March’s daughters had gotten into a jealous argument with one of her friends, but rather than return unkindness for unkindness, the daughter turns the other cheek. The mother praises her because of this, but the all-knowing narrator lets the reader know that even this most gentle of women offered her praise “with the air of one who had learned the difference between preaching and practicing.” (chap. 30) It’s fairly easy to say “love your enemies,” but it’s extremely hard to do so. It’s like we heard yesterday from Rev. Sanderson about church growth: it’s 20% idea and 80% work.
In this morning’s Gospel, we go to the source of this most difficult lesson that is easier to preach than to practice, but Jesus did practice what He preached. I mentioned this at the beginning of this past week’s Bible Study. We’re beginning to read the chapters in Mark’s Gospel that tell us about Jesus’ final days. Jesus goes to the cross because He will not return hatred for hatred.
This adds credibility to Jesus’ words when He shares with us what I think is the most counter-intuitive, most radical, most difficult teaching in all our faith. He says, “‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies …’” “But I say to you that listen …” Jesus knows that hearing this bizarre commandment is not the same as listening, as taking it in and giving it a chance to take hold.
There are a lot of other world religions that would call love your enemies excessive. There are a lot of nations that would call this suicidal. There are a lot of Christians who would call this impossible. And there were a lot of people who heard Jesus who thought the exact same thing. That’s why I have the cartoon on the front of today’s bulletin.
Crowds are politely hearing what Jesus has to say, but they’re not really willing to listen. The ones in the crowd are a defeated people. Their conquerors are the Romans.
You know how upset we get over the thought of Russian interference in our elections? Imagine instead that the Russians not only interfered, but that they defeated us and were in control of our lives. That’s just like the feelings the ones in the crowds would have had toward the Romans.
When Jesus preaches “Love your enemies,” they hear His words, but they can’t process them. They immediately start saying among themselves, “Certainly he doesn’t mean the Romans." "I would hope not,” says another in reply. But Jesus does mean even the Romans when He teaches: Love your enemies.
But before we settle for only hearing today’s Gospel rather than really listening to it, let’s put it in perspective. Somewhere at home I have an old editorial cartoon that shows one last Arab ready to throw a bomb at one last Israeli who is ready to shoot him with his Uzi. Everything around them has been destroyed and they’re the last two standing, and now they’re ready to kill each other. Does the Middle East feel like a safe corner of the world with this sort of generational revenge mentality?
I’ve heard also that we’re selling Saudi Arabia nuclear technology because Iran already has it. This means in the tinder box that is the Middle East Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia are going to try and protect themselves by all building their own nuclear weapons. Does that sound safer?
Last week in Kashmir a group from the Pakistani side killed about 40 soldiers on the Indian side. India has vowed to retaliate with a "jaw breaking response." And both of these countries are trying to feel safer by both building nuclear weapons. Does that sound safer?
Or how about the fact that the United States and Russia are pulling out of nuclear control treaties that limit closer range weapons. This cuts down on reaction times and a hastily made judgment mistake could easily escalate to full nuclear war. Does that make us feel safer?
Stephen Hawking, that famous wheelchair bound astrophysicist, said that we have not made contact with other intelligent civilizations in the universe because it is very possible that once a civilization makes enough progress to reach out into space that it has also learned enough to destroy itself. Maybe we haven’t heard from anybody else because that’s exactly what happens every time.
Maybe “love your enemies” is not as absurd as it sounds.
Or how about this from another perspective? I imagine that we’ve all seen movies where someone is being tortured, but the person can’t be broken. Then the villains bring in someone that the person cares about. The one who would not crack when harm was endured personally could not tolerate the thought of harm being done to someone they loved.
What if God in Jesus was willing to face the torturous death of the cross Himself, but God cannot bear what we do to each other, His beloved children? What if the agony of our harming each other is even more fearsome for God than the cross?
Imagine how our hatreds and violence, even to the point of nuclear destruction, must cause God to shudder? This is an offense at the very nature of who God is and the strangeness of “love your enemies” is only strange because it’s asking us to be like God.
Let me close with the words of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on this our last Sunday of African-American History Month. He had many a reason to return hatred for hatred, but he clung to Jesus’ Gospel instead and in the end he would say: “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
Love your enemies, I believe, is the hardest lesson of Christianity, but it is essential to Christianity. There’s just no way to soften its severity. We can hear it or we can truly listen to it, but we can’t say Jesus didn’t mean it.
May we pray for peace and for lessening the number of our enemies so that this commandment is not as hard to bear, and may we find the strength in our worship to not only preach but practice this strange commandment in our lives. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
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