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Sermon 11/7: The Face of the Enemy

November 16, 2010

[Here’s the sermon from All Saints (two Sundays ago)]

Jesus says: “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you.”

Love your enemies.

Now we might try to soften that command by somehow rationalizing that under the right circumstances a deserved put-down, or a good swift smack, or even a well-targeted smart-bomb can be, you know, expressions of love. Right?

But in today’s reading, Jesus gets even more explicit: “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat, do not withhold even your shirt.”

Not much wiggle room there. In this passage from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus explicitly commands us not to fight back when someone wrongs us, not to resist when someone maliciously takes from us.

“Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you.” It means just what it seems to. It requires little interpretation. But it’s so much to ask! How can we possibly live up to that?

It seems fitting to me that we’re saddled with this piece of scripture on the same day that we are going to baptize the newest member of our congregation, and on the same day that we will all renew our baptismal promises.

When Drake’s parents and god-parents and grand-parents bring him forward to be baptized, they will be asked “Do you put your whole trust in Jesus’ grace and love?” and “Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?”

So in case any of us had forgotten, today’s scripture is reminding us of just how much we are promising when we commit to living out our baptismal promises.

Jesus says: “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you.”

“Do you put your whole trust in Jesus’ grace and love? Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?”

And then, we—all of us—will re-state our Baptismal Covenant which ends with these two questions: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” and “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

Every human being…

Notice that our baptismal covenant talks about serving Christ in “all persons,” and striving for justice and peace among “all people,” not “all Christians” or “all Episcopalians” or “all Americans” or “everyone that doesn’t annoy me.” All people. Every human being.

And when these questions are asked of us, what’s the answer we are to give?

“I will, with God’s help.”

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

I will with God’s help.

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

I will, with God’s help.

I will. With God’s help.

And there, there in those answers to those ridiculously demanding questions, there is the lifeline we need. Because how can we so blithely promise to love our enemies, to do good to those who harm us, to seek and serve Christ in every single, annoying, petty, hateful, irritating, weak-willed human being? I mean, come on! Isn’t that a bit too much to ask?

But the important part is that we don’t have to do it on our own. When asked to submit to Jesus’ intensoid demands, we say, “we will” but we also recognize that we always need help. We need God’s help to follow them.

Because we cannot love our enemies on our own. We cannot seek and serve Christ in every human being on our own. No way. We’re too annoying, petty, hateful, irritating and weak-willed ourselves to live up to all that all by ourselves.

But with God’s help? With God infusing us with God’s all-powerful, all-good, life giving spirit?

Yes. We will. We will, with God’s help.

One of my friends back in seminary was a young woman who was fairly orthodox, fairly conservative in her beliefs. And she really had a hard time getting along with one of our professors—a theologian who was liberal in the extreme. In class, my friend would frequently push back against some of this professor’s more radical assertions—but always respectfully and appropriately, in my opinion. But she also pushed back with passion and a certain amount of zeal. And I could tell that our professor did not really give my friend’s conservative perspective much credence. He’d frequently dismiss her concerns without really engaging with them.

Later, I learned that this professor had written a letter to our seminary dean as well as to my friend’s bishop criticizing her beliefs and her somewhat orthodox theology and labeling her unfit for ordination to the priesthood.

My friend was so, so, so furious. It was one thing for this professor to tout ideas my friend disagreed with. And it was another for this professor to avoid addressing my friend’s pointed questions and concerns when she raised them in class. But it was something much more to seek to torpedo my friend’s standing with our dean and her bishop.

My friend found herself overwhelmed by rage at this professor. She told me it was difficult for her to be on the seminary campus without feeling overcome with fury and hatred toward him. She knew she should just let it go, be forgiving, love her enemy, yada, yada, yada. But it wasn’t happening. She was preoccupied by fantasies about how to get back at him. And she seriously considered pulling up stakes and transferring to another seminary.

Whenever she attended services at our seminary chapel, she prayed about it. She prayed for help, for help from God, that God would help her deal with this situation with this professor from hell, this enemy.

And then one day in spring, I remember it was during Lent, she managed to put it behind her. I was chatting with her and she seemed happier than I’d seen her in some time. She was telling me about a stations of the cross project she was working on, and that led her to tell me about a dream she’d had—which she thought was a gift from God, an answer to her prayers.

In this dream, she was walking along and she saw Jesus up ahead of her with his back to her, limping, carrying a cross—a crown of thorns on his head, the whole thing. And she was running to catch up to him to help him and it seemed like it took forever for her to catch up, like she was on a treadmill or something. And then when she finally caught up to him and put her hand on his shoulder, Jesus turned around to look at her and he had the face of that awful professor. Jesus had the face of her enemy.

She said she woke up in that instant of recognition and as she went through her day she began to feel better. She said she began to feel some honest-to-goodness sympathy for the professor. Not love. She wouldn’t take it that far. But sympathy. Sympathy for sure. She began to let seep into her heart all the ways in which this professor might be suffering himself, all the ways in which this professor probably need love and support himself. And her bitterness and anger washed away.

Jesus says, “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you.”

Our Baptismal Covenant asks: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”

And we answer: “We will, with God’s help.”

With God’s help, we can. We will.

 

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