The Rev. Jennifer Adams – Sunday, February 19, 2017 – Epiphany 7, Year A: Leviticus 9:1-2, 9-18, Matthew 5:38-48
Well, they say that desperate times call for desperate measures. You’ve heard that expression, right? Does anyone know where it comes from?
The expression is believed to have originated with a saying from the ancient Greek physician, Hippocrates. In his work Amorphisms, he wrote: “For extreme diseases, extreme methods of cure…are most suitable.” Good trivia answer for you to tuck away.
Now without getting into a medical conversation about when that is actually an appropriate approach, I think it’s interesting that the phrase itself had to do with attempts to heal, to cure, to make whole again. Desperate times of brokenness, desperate times of unwellness call for desperate or extreme sorts of responses, or as the phrase has become translated, “measures.” And all of that makes sense. And I’m not sure about all of you, but I can actually relate a bit to that.
But before we talk about our time which feels sort of desperate these days, I want to talk about Jesus’ time, because things have been ramping up in the gospel now for a few weeks. Here’s what’s been happening: for every commandment given the people through Moses, Jesus began asking not less, but more of his followers.
In case you missed a Sunday or two (like I have) here’s a quick example from last week to bring us all up to speed. The people had been taught, as one of the ten major commandments of the law, “Do not commit murder.” We’re all familiar with that one, right? Then Jesus said, “Not only that, but I’m telling you to not even stay angry with someone.” Whoa- that’s up a notch! “And if you’re angry,” Jesus said, (presumably because he understood that that was going to happen,) “then you have to make a genuine and wholehearted effort to work it out with that other person.”
So “Don’t murder,” was an important line to draw and to maintain, but it was too low a bar for what Jesus was calling for. So he made it very clear that in his presence, the bar was being raised. “Not only don’t murder, be reconciled to your brother or sister,” he said. And Jesus took that approach with other commandments too. For every teaching given the people in that first round of ten basics and some other laws too, Jesus took them to another level.
And so this week we heard the doozy in this whole series:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. ..
And then to top it off, “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.”
And that’s when I think, “OH NO. This is going to be very hard.”
But apparently, in gospel terms, desperate times call for desperate measures. When things are very broken, extreme actions are called for. And in Jesus’ book, “desperate measures” include things like prayer, the giving of self, going that extra mile, and above all, desperate times call for the extreme action of love – even of the enemy.
Now I’m challenged by that for many reasons. And I’m guessing I’m not alone on this one. I can understand the call to pray and the command to give of self in the face of being challenged personally. I get the bit about going the extra mile because I know it often takes LOTS of miles to get anywhere. But I’m not sure what “love your enemies” really means. I’ve had a couple of weeks to think about this one and I still don’t know what it means.
In all honesty, I’m not even sure who my enemy is. And what would loving them look like, exactly?
In Greek the word for enemy is “exthros” (which sounds a little tougher than “enemy”) and it refers to those who harbor a “personal hatred and are bent on inflicting harm.” So an enemy is one who hates me either passively or actively. And I’m supposed to love them?
And so what would that look like exactly? “Excuse, me, while you threaten to take away my rights, how about a big hug?” OK. It’s probably not that. Besides, it borders on a sarcasm that is not helpful here. My apologies.
So, how about this: Hey you over there hurting my brothers and sisters, you who are making life harder for those who already have fewer rights, fewer resources, fewer opportunities, or safeties or privileges than I, can we hang out for awhile? Because if I’m honest [and here’s the kicker] I’m guilty too. There are miles I haven’t gone, cloaks I haven’t offered, cries for help I have not heeded, love I have not given. I don’t even know you, but I find myself yelling at you all the time – at least inside. Maybe we should try something else.
Desperate times call for desperate measures from us all. Maybe that’s part of how enemies become something else to us. In our best moments we see ourselves in them and so we commit to the kind of change this world so desperately needs.
The Indigo Girls have a song called, Become You. One of my cardinal rules is: when confused, go to the Indigos. And so here I am with them, seeking counsel. This particular song is sort of haunting in its lyrics and it doesn’t resolve itself even by the end of the song, but it speaks clearly to the challenge in today’s gospel. It’s written by Amy Ray and in this song she’s wrestling with some of the hardest part of her southern heritage and those who are enemy/neighbor to her.
“I heard you sing a rebel song.” she sings.
“Sung it loud and all alone…
I see you walking in the glare.
Down the county road we share.
Our southern blood, my heresy.
Damn that ol’ confederacy.
“It took a, long time to become the thing, I am to you,” Ray sings.
“And you won’t tear it apart.
Without a fight, without a heart,” she says.
“It took a, long time to become you, become you.
It took a long time to become you, to become you.”
And there it is. It took a long time to become the things we are to each other, and the tearing apart of that approach to the other as “thing” involves struggle and it involves heart. Healing in what feels like desperate times involves calling out the brokenness of our hearts and also the love that we have to offer through those cracks. It took a long time for us “to become” to this place we are today. But there is redemption to be had. The good news is that there is always redemption to be had! Desperate times call for desperate measures but we know what those measures are.
I see you walking in the glare, down the county road we share.
To the voting booth we share.
Through this lakeshore town we share.
I see you walking in the glare on the sandy beach we share,
toward the holy feast we share,
into the new day we share.
The only way forward according (not only to the Indigo Girls but ) to Jesus, is to begin to move not as “the things we have become” to each other, not as enemies but as children of God with gifts, and needs, and hurts, and hopes each and every one of us.
The only way forward is to love.
Martin Luther King, Jr. in a sermon he preached on this very gospel passage – a sermon which he revised while in prison by the way – said the following. (I’m going to share more than I usually would because his words seem so very much needed today.)
“Upheaval after upheaval has reminded us that modern man is traveling along a road called hate, in a journey that will bring us to destruction and damnation. Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, the command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival. Love even for enemies is the key to the solution of the problems of our world…
Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence … in a descending spiral of destruction. So when Jesus says “Love your enemies,” he is setting forth a profound and ultimately inescapable admonition. Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies—or else? …By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.
“My friends,” King wrote, “we have followed the so-called practical way for too long a time now, and it has led inexorably to deeper confusion and chaos…For the salvation of our nation and the salvation of [hu]mankind, we must follow another way. This does not mean that we abandon our righteous efforts [keep writing, keep calling, keep marching.] With every ounce of our energy we must continue to rid this nation of the incubus of segregation. But we shall not in the process relinquish our privilege and our obligation to love. ..Love is the most durable power in the world.” said King.
Love is the most durable power in the world. OK, so one more try on my part, “Hey, you who have threaten to take away my rights, can I give you my coat,” Sort of an awkward opening line. So, how about this: “Can I give you some water?” a little weird too, even if it’s gospel.
How about this, “I’ll buy you a coffee or how about a beer?” And then, “Can I share with you my prayers (even though I am an Episcopalian, I can share my prayers!) …How about my story? … By the way, what’s your name? …Where are you from? …Tell me about your kids… Do you have dogs? I do. Here’s some pictures. .. OK, I have to ask you, what are you worried about, really? …And I want you to know, here’s what I’m afraid of, really… As we stretch out these miles can we walk a few of them together, or maybe a few yards? Or how about we start with a few steps? And by the way, don’t worry about that hug offer. We aren’t there yet. But maybe someday we will be.”
Maybe that’s what loving your enemy looks like or what reconciliation looks like, or at least how those things might stand a chance of coming to be in this broken world. Desperate times call for desperate measures they say, at least when it comes to healing. And we know what those measures need to be: Sharing. Praying. Listening. Loving. Forgiving. And loving some more.
May we be given the strength to do them.