How to love your enemies

A sermon for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany in Year C, at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid


“Love your enemies,” Jesus tells us, and we sigh like teenagers whose teacher has just announced a pop quiz, or worse still, a health and relationships lesson. We don’t want to hear this.

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” Do good. Who does he think we are –  saints?!

And yet he believes us capable of this miracle, to love a world that runs on hate and fear, like oil in its veins. Jesus trusts us to do better, to find an alternative fuel, one that is more life-sustaining, and more soul-friendly.

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you … For [the Most High] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

St Paul wrote in persecuted times,

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good … Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them … Repay no one evil for evil … Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. (Romans 12:9,14,17a,19)

Some of you remember that last Fall, I told you about my friend whose husband, a rabbi, survived the horrific gun violence and terror attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Beth Kissileff wrote movingly this past week about why she hopes that this murderer will not receive the death sentence; because our hope is always in mercy, and the chance for restoration; because only God is capable of true justice; because the best revenge is a life of faithfulness, integrity, unrelenting good.

If we take vengeance off the table, if we take evil for evil, an eye for an eye away, what are we to do with our anger at the evil that is in this world?

Love, says Jesus. Love with a vengeance! Love so hard that you turn evil back on itself, going the extra mile, giving the extra cloak, turning the extra cheek, not in acquiescence to evil, but to demonstrate the better way, the loving way; love that is strong, stronger than death, and more resilient than evil.

Do good, regardless of those who hate you. Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.

And we might ask, but how, because we are not saints yet, most of us at least?

The example of Joseph and his brothers is both difficult and instructive. Joseph spent years as a slave and in prison before he ended up in the exalted position in Pharaoh’s house in which his brothers find him. And even Joseph, for all his fine words, struggled to work out how to forgive them, who to love, how to be reconciled and do good to the brothers who cause him so much harm. He wept. He had them arrested. He hid his true identity from them. Only after a lot of soul-searching and back-and-forth (literally, for the brothers) was he able, finally, to face them, to feed them, and to do good to them.

Perhaps this is a good place to point out that while Jesus is uncompromising about the commandment to love our enemies, to bless those who curse us, he offers a reprieve to the abused among us, asking only that we pray for those who have abused us. While love heals our hurt, it does not require that we keep our wounds open. Jesus does not expect us to re-enter the cycles of sin and violence which would victimize us. He does not want us to make compromise with evil, but to love ourselves as our neighbour, to drive out evil with the prayers, the answered prayers, of love. Jesus love us, and does good to us, promising resurrection.

Jesus instructs us not to acquiesce to evil, but rather commands us to fill the world with love, with what is good, such that it crowds out all evil intent.

God provide that we are never tested to the extent of my friend Beth; but instead, we can practice on small things. Instead of rising to an argument when someone at home pushes just the right buttons, we can switch the code, responding instead with cool, calm, calculated love. When someone cuts you off in traffic, then needs to change lanes at the traffic light, instead of enjoying the little thrill of petty revenge, we could let them go in ahead of us, smoothing their way, taking the anger of the road down a notch, soothing our own souls and, who knows, maybe infecting some rude road hog with a little grace.

This is not the same, by the way, as letting them go and hoping that they pick up a ticket on the next stretch of highway. God is not a traffic cop waiting to avenge our slights. In fact, the greatest risk that we run in loving our enemies, in filling the world with forgiveness and grace, in leaving our vengeance to God, that Most High God who is kind to the ungrateful and to the wicked – the risk is that our basest desires for vengeance might never be fulfilled. And isn’t that the real reason that we hold on to our own revenge – because we don’t trust God not to be more merciful, more loving, more forgiving than anyone could ever deserve?

Love your enemies, says Jesus. Let God take your anger and turn it into something beyond your imagining – just as Jesus turned the horror, the terror, the death of the cross into the astonishment of the Resurrection. Leave vengeance to God, and see how the Most High will make saints out of us all by showing kindness to the ungrateful and the wicked, after all. For the justice of God is not to repay evil with evil, but to flood the world with good, love poured out on the cross, life irrepressible, the defeat of death and evil intent, overcome by the love of Jesus.

Amen.

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