We all know that old adage, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” I should tell this to my cat, Spitfire Jack, as he regularly nips me when I’m not pouring his kibbles fast enough! But in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus turns that around, turns it around to: “Feed the hand that bites you.” Okay, it sounds a little different in the Bible. In the Bible it reads, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” But “Feed the hand that bites you” is basically what Jesus is talking about.
Be kind to those whom you would call ‘enemy.’ Seek out the good of those who seek to do you ill. Maybe even try to understand them- understand where they’re coming from. Not that we need to agree with them, but at least try to see things from their perspective.And above all, respect the person, even if we take exception to their beliefs.
Of course, Jesus didn’t live in the world we live in. Maybe His ideas don’t apply to our complex society. I mean, life was so much simpler back then… when all they did was crucify those they disagreed with.
The year that Jesus was born, the Romans had crucified 6,000 Jews and lined their bodies along the road that went into Jerusalem, to make a point that opposition would not be tolerated. I’d call that an enemy. 40 years after Jesus died, the Romans came in and leveled Jerusalem, leveled the Temple, leveled the Holy of holies until stone was not left upon stone. They slaughtered everyone in the city. The only ones who managed to escape were some Pharisees and Christians. Everyone else- the Zealots, the Sadducees, the Essenes- were all killed. I’d call that an enemy.
But life was so much simpler back then, wasn’t it? And the call to love one’s enemies was not as hard to hear as it is today. Today, we have ISIS, and Russians, and the falling of global democracy into the hands of hardline nationalists. We have real enemies. Surely when Jesus says “Love your enemies,” he’s not talking about Muslim terrorists or white supremacists.
Oh, but the Savior of the World is talking exactly about that. And just like it did in His own day, Jesus’ call to love our enemies goes against our grain, goes against every reptilian instinct that lives within us. But if there is one thing Jesus preached about, it was this: Love your enemies. Pray for those who seek to hurt you. Take hate out of the equation.
Remember Lillian Carter, Pres. Carter’s crotchety old mother? I loved that woman! She had so many great lines. One of them was, “Sometimes when I look at my children, I say to myself, ‘Lillian, you should have remained a virgin.” She had one son who was the President of the United States- the good son; and another son, Billy, who acted like an idiot and always embarrassed the family. She once said, “I love all my children, but some of them I don’t like.” I BELIEVE She was talking about Billy.
We can Not Like someone. We can profoundly disagree with someone. But we can’t get around God’s command that no matter how we feel about someone, we have to love them… which means that we have to deal with them with compassion, we have to seek their good.
I think of the relationship between Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Antonin Scalia. You could not get farther apart politically than those two. They fought tooth and nail against each other’s ideas- political enemies. But they never stopped seeing each other as valuable, respected human beings. And when Antonin Scalia died, Ruth Bader Ginsberg wept. And if there is anything our world needs to hear right now, that’s it.
I preached a prophetic sermon last week- what some called a political sermon- calling on us to have compassion on our immigrant and refugee neighbors, and to stand up for our gay sisters and brothers when the First Amendment Defense Act- which allows for discrimination against LGBT people- is brought to the floor in the next couple of months. Some of you were glad I preached it; others were deeply disturbed and angry. Some of you felt that politics should never come into the church. Two dear members, Betty Schroeder and Joanne Winchell, have quit the church because of my sermon. That breaks my heart, because it means that I have failed to bring them into the conversation.
It’s one thing to preach what I feel God would have me preach. In the Hebrew scriptures, the prophets were never popular, and people were always out for their hides. Sometimes preaching is supposed to comfort the afflicted, but sometimes it’s supposed to afflict the comfortable. Jesus was popular with some- but there were others who said that politics should never interfere with religion, and they crucified Him because of it. The official charge against Him was treason against the Empire.
It’s one thing to preach what I feel God would have me preach. But if what I am about- if what we are about- is not being right, but is bringing change in the world in a way that brings it closer to God’s vision, then I need to do it- we need to do it- in a way that includes people in the conversation, and doesn’t make them feel like they’re on the outside. I can’t be right if it makes someone else feel wrong, because then I have just made the situation worse.
I am sorry for failing Joanne and Betty, and others of you who felt disrespected last week. I will try to do better to preach justice and compassion in a way that brings everyone into the conversation, so that no one feels left out. But I have a problem, because the Christian faith calls us to speak out against injustice, and when we do that, it’s always politics. I will never tell you who to vote for, but as a Christian, we are commanded to speak out for the poor and the oppressed- or as the Bible says, for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger in our midst. According to Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Great Britain, the Hebrew Bible contains only one commandment to love our neighbors, but no less than 36 commands to love the stranger. 36:1.
So help me out here: is there a way I can preach justice from the pulpit that doesn’t feel like ‘politics’- like political manipulation? congregational responses: Have more sermons that aren’t so serious mixed in with serious ones. Use parables instead of direct, contemporary issues and let people draw their own connections. Keep the historical Biblical perspective; don’t do some topics in the sermon, but do it in a different setting.
And I have another problem, because, as your pastor, I’m the one who has the pulpit, not you. And so I get to say what I have to think, and you don’t. And that’s not necessarily fair. What could we do here at Emmanuel to make it so that this is a safe place where we can talk about hard things, disagree about things, come to respect the other side about things? congregational responses: Put out a comment box; bring back Coffeehouse Conversations, where we can meet to discuss current affairs; Have more Adult Forums after worship, dealing with contemporary issues; put the Sanctuary chairs in a circle and have an all-church-conversation instead of a sermon.
When I was telling my Sainted Daughter the Community Organizer about all this, she replied by saying, “Mom, you have to call people in, not call people out.” “Wha?” I replied. “Google the site, “Showing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ)”, and look up Calling In-Calling Out.”
And since I am always obedient to my daughter’s instructions, I did just that. And I found some really good stuff. Calling Out someone means calling them out on the mat. Making them accountable for what they say and do. And that’s good; we need to be held accountable for our actions and beliefs. Jesus called people out. God calls people out. God wants us to be accountable for who we are in the world, and what we believe.
But before we can call people to be accountable, we have to make sure they’re part of the conversation. No one is going to listen to what to what we have to say until we have listened to them first. And so this site my Caitlin sent me to- Showing Up For Racial Justice- talks about a technique called LARA: LISTEN-AFFIRM-RESPOND-ADD.
LISTEN: Believe that the person talking is a good person, trying to bring good into the world. AFFIRM: Try to find something – anything- you can agree on. It might be hard. RESPOND: Set the tone. Start with an affirmation if you can. What good can you find in what they’re saying? ADD examples from what you understand, what you have experienced, that might not be the same as theirs: the other side of the story, as you see it.
My brother-in-law, Fred, is so good at this. He’s a profoundly conservative Christian guy, but he is also genuinely curious and respectful. We’ll be talking about… anything… health care… economics… free trade. It doesn’t really matter. Chances are we’re going to be on opposite sides of the issue. But he will always seek out my opinion, listen really, really carefully, make sure he has understood what I said, and then say, “That is really interesting.” And he’ll affirm what our common goals are, and what we have in common. And maybe he will think about how he needs to change his opinion, considering what I have just said. And then he says, “Have you considered…” And I get to listen to him.
I always learn so much from Fred! And I always feel bigger, wholer when I finish discussing things with him. I feel good when we finish, even if we end up in the same place we started. In a very real way, Fred feeds the hand that wants to bite him! He offers a safe space, and a willing heart. And he takes the time to be with me. That’s huge. When was the last time we took the time to actually sit down with someone who disagreed with us? Is this part of what Jesus meant when He said, “Love your enemy”?
I like what how Eugene Petersen interpreted Jesus’ words in today’s scripture. Will you say it with me?
“You’ve heard people say the old adage, ‘Love your friends and hate your enemies.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true, God-created self. This is what God does: God gives the sun to warm and rain to nourish to everyone, regardless if they’re good or bad, nasty or nice. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to the people who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that. In a word, what I’m saying is, GROW UP! You’re citizens of God’s kingdom, so act like it. Live out the identity that God gave you. Live graciously and generously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” (Matthew 5:43-48, The Message, by Eugene Petersen.)
You know, I can’t improve on Scripture: Let those who oppose you bring out the best in you, not the worst… If all we do is love the lovable, how is that Christian?… If all we do is greet those who reach out to us first, how is that Christian?… It’s time for us to grow up, and act like the citizens of God’s Realm that we are, living graciously and generously towards others, the same way God lives towards us.
Nope. I can’t improve on Jesus. Because the way of Jesus is going to be the salvation of the world. In the Name of the One who loves us and will never let us go, even Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Scripture for Feb. 5, 2016: MATTHEW 5:43-48
In the 5th chapter of his gospel, Matthew compiles all of Jesus’ major teachings into one place, called “The Sermon On The Mount.” This is one thing that Jesus taught there:
“You’ve heard people say the old adage, ‘Love your friends and hate your enemies.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true, God-created self. This is what God does. God gives the sun to warm and rain to nourish to everyone, regardless if they’re good or bad, nasty or nice. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to the people who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that. In a word, what I’m saying is, GROW UP! You’re citizens of God’s kingdom, so act like it. Live out the identity that God gave you. Live graciously and generously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.