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Love Your Enemies

Rev. Jennifer Adams – Epiphany 7A – February 20, 2011

So when Jesus was talking to his disciples and offering the teaching that we heard this morning, I wish someone had asked a clarifying question. I wish that this story had played out like it did in that other gospel story when Jesus told them that they had to love their neighbor. In that story someone who was listening wanted a little more information, so he raised his hand and asked Jesus, “So, just who exactly is my neighbor?” And Jesus followed that question with a story about the Good Samaritan which shattered their previous assumptions and called forth a redefinition of what neighbor actually meant. Well today, in a similar teaching moment — but addressing the other end of the relationship spectrum Jesus went beyond “Love your neighbor” into the unchartered territory of “Love your enemy.” And apparently the response was dead silence. (At least nothing was recorded, noted or inserted at this point in the story.) So maybe they were quiet because they knew exactly to whom Jesus was referring; or maybe they were so taken aback by the magnitude of the command that they were left speechless. But regardless of the reasons, nobody raised a hand to ask Jesus the logical follow up questions, “Just who is my enemy? And why should I love them.” and I wish that somebody had.

Because first, the whole concept of enemy seems to be a little confusing these days. In a truly interesting interview with Terry Gross in October, John Stewart said that he thinks that’s because we’ve so overused the word “enemy” that it’s been stretched to the point of having very little meaning. Stewart explained that in our culture today we not only use “enemy” to mean “those who would do us harm” but also to refer to people with whom we disagree, people on the other side of this issue or that issue, people who think differently than we do, people who believe differently than we do. Almost suddenly our list of enemies has become practically endless and we’ve severely crippled our ability to talk to one another. So discussions as portrayed by the media have become “culture wars” rather than conversations. It’s “us versus them” rather than us just trying to figure out how to be us. And that’s a problem.

Now the good news is that what Jesus said in the gospel covers this situation. No matter how broadly we define “enemy”, no matter how long the list happens to be, we still have to love them. Period. And maybe that’s part of why Jesus said it the way he said it. He knew that this side of heaven, we would never be able to think of everyone as neighbor – so he had to throw in the other end too and include them in the love command. But I think that part of what we need to do given the climate today is to be aware of how we use this word “enemy”, and reign it in a bit. According to Webster – an enemy is more extreme. An enemy is “a hostile unit,” “one who is seeking to injure”, or “something or someone that is harmful or deadly.” And while various outlets would want me to think it is so, neither the person who cheers for the other football team nor the person who votes differently than I do fit those definitions. So we need to remember to keep perspective. That will help us do love.

But reigning in our use of the word “enemy” only takes us to the next step of having to acknowledge that there are people who are doing harm in this world, maybe to us directly, maybe not to us directly, but perhaps doing harm to the least of us — and what do we do with them? And my next question, “Why is “love them” what Jesus wanted us to do?” Why not “limit your enemies” or “trap your enemies and lock them up forever?” Why not even “kill them and rid the world of their presence so that the world can be a better place?” Or at the very least why not “Run as fast as you possibly can away from your enemies and don’t ever, ever look back?”

Well, maybe none of those things could be what Jesus told us to do because he knew that the only hope of enemies becoming something besides enemies, the only hope of enemies becoming not harmful nor hostile is love. And so “love them” was the only answer he could give, no matter how the question back at him was asked. You’ve seen the bumper sticker that says “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind?” Maybe love really is the only hope we have of helping everyone to see.

Martin Luther King Jr talked about this gospel passage like this: First he told a story: Sometime ago my brother and I were driving … to Chattanooga, Tennessee, from Atlanta. He was driving the car. And for some reason the drivers were very discourteous that night. They didn’t dim their lights; hardly any driver that passed by dimmed his lights. And I remember very vividly, my brother A. D. looked over [to me] and in a tone of anger said: “I know what I’m going to do. The next car that comes along here and refuses to dim the lights, I’m going to fail to dim mine and pour them on in all of their power.” And I looked at him … and said: “Oh no, don’t do that. There’d be too much light on this highway, and it will end up in mutual destruction for [everyone]. [They’d be blind, right?] Then King said, “Somebody’s got to have some sense on this highway.”

“Somebody must have sense enough to dim the lights, and that is the trouble, isn’t it?” King asked the congregation. “…if somebody doesn’t have sense enough to turn on the dim and beautiful and powerful lights of love in this world, the whole of our civilization will be plunged into the abyss … Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral … Somebody must have … morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. And you do that by love.”

And that story hits us where we are. It feels sometimes in the day to day like someone’s got to dim the lights, or at least change their source and turn on the beautiful and powerful lights of love in this world. Now according to Jesus, that’s our work. Why? Of all the work we could be doing why love? King had an answer to that too: There is a final reason I think that Jesus says, “Love your enemies,” he preached. “It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. That’s why Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform them. [And the hate eventually transforms you and not for the better.] But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption. You just keep loving people and keep loving them … Here’s the person who is a neighbor, and this person is doing something wrong to you and all of that. Just keep … loving them … and they can’t stand it too long … Oh they may react in the beginning … with bitterness because they’re mad because you [engage them] like that. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus [tells us to do it.] There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.

And then King closed his sermon with this and so will I, ‘This morning,” he said, “as I look into your eyes, and into the eyes of all of my brothers [and sisters] in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you, “I love you. I would rather die than hate you.” And I’m foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed. And then we will be in God’s kingdom. We will be able to matriculate into the university of eternal life because we had the power to love our enemies, to bless those persons that cursed us, to even decide to be good to those persons who hated us, and we even prayed for those persons who despitefully used us.

Oh God, help us in our lives and in all of our attitudes, to work out this controlling force of love, this controlling power that can solve every problem that we confront in all areas [of life ]… Give us this strong determination. In the name and spirit of this Christ, we pray.

Amen.