Wednesday, February 23, 2011

SERMON: God Loves His Enemies

Date: February 20, 2011
Sermon Text: Matthew 5:38-48

[Introduction] When I was growing up, Gary Larson created the comic strip The Far Side. In the strip, God was a recurring character. Larson often depicted God as a big man with blue-tinted skin, a white unibrow, and bushy white beard. One of Larson’s particularly popular depictions of God is called “God at his computer.” In the picture, God is sitting at his desk, idly watching his computer screen. On the screen, a man is walking obliviously down the side-walk. I say “obliviously” because there is a falling piano inches above his head! But, God looks on undisturbed, his finger hovering over a big white button on his keyboard marked, simply, “Smite.”

God sitting at his computer, bored, waiting for someone to slip up so he can hit the smite button – that’s a way a lot of people think about God. Some theologians have said that everything we say about God is just us casting our own images against the sky and calling that self-reflection “God.” In this case, I think they’re right. God, bored at his computer, smiting people as a form of amusement – that probably says more about us than it does about God. Our Gospel passage today illumines just that

[Page 1] Jesus sits atop a mountain in Galilee teaching his disciples, having just escaped the crowd. He had been among the people healing, teaching in synagogues, and driving out demons. But in our passage, he has withdrawn, coming up out of the crowd, and the disciples gather around him. He teaches what later will be called the Sermon on the Mount. The disciples are the primary audience. The crowd gathers below

As the disciples sit and the crowd strains to hear, Jesus repeats the Scripture to them: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’.” Again, later, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy’.” That last bit about hating the enemy wasn’t in the Jewish Scriptures, but it was apparently something the disciples and the crowd had already heard. Jesus and his audience live in a world where it is natural, even expected, to hate your enemy

And Jesus’ audience has many enemies. The crowd shifts uncomfortably as a group of Roman soldiers passes nearby. It’s better to keep your eyes down than earn the wrath of those non-Jews, the “Gentiles,” who oppress them and laugh in derision at Israel’s faith in the one, true God. Perhaps worse than the soldiers at the edge of the crowd are the Jewish people who aren’t there, their own people who sell themselves out to the Romans as tax collectors. The collectors are seen as the worst of the worst, preying on their own for the benefit of the enemy. It is no wonder that both before and after Jesus’ ministry, great numbers of Jewish people rose up in revolt against Rome and felt justified doing so. Their very way of life was under attack. Hating your enemy – returning an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, striking when struck, protecting one’s assets from those who would steal them by hook or by crook – this was the only way to survive. In other words, protect yourself; look out for what’s yours; and hate the one who wants to take it from you. For Jesus’ disciples and the crowd below, this is the way the world works. Watch out for yourself; hate your enemy. Enemy-hatred is the name of the game.

[Page 2] In the 21st century, in an age of democratic government and religious tolerance, it is easy to think that this human dynamic has changed. If we acknowledge having enemies, they are often far away, speakers of other languages, followers of violent forms of religion. But, we too are like the people in Jesus’ day. We too have enemies that make us want to watch out only for ourselves and lash out against any threat, like a snake coiled tightly around its eggs.

We keep enemies in our personal relationships. We refuse to deal with conflicts as they arise, and the inconvenience quickly turns to annoyance which festers into disgust and bleeds hate. We make foes of those who should be our friends. We tell nasty stories about them to ourselves and to anyone who will listen. Or, we bottle the stories up and let them ferment until we cannot hold them any longer, and we explode.

It’s been said that the average inmate serving time in American prisons for crimes like theft, drugs, etc. has six convictions. Most are not there because they were hungry and stole something to survive. Most are the product of brutal streets full of the enemy-hatred that we think of when we first think of an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But, whereas the average inmate has six convictions, there is a special class of inmate that on average has only one. They are the murderers. Most often, they commit crimes of passion driven by anger, oftentimes anger that has festered against a loved one for years. It festers until one day they snap, and they kill. This statistic alone shows Jesus to be very wise: he said in our reading last week that to hate your neighbour was to commit murder. They are not so far apart after all.

But it also goes to show that even in today’s world, we all harbor enemies, even though we often call them friends. We nurse our hatreds with our neighbours and let them grow. Enemy-hatred, even if we do a good job masking it, is still the name of the game, and because of that it is no wonder that Larson’s cartoon of God at his computer resonates so deeply with us. We all know a few people we would like to drop pianos on. If God were like us, then God would be just like Larson depicted.

[Page 3] But, thanks be to God, God is not like us at all. On the mount, Jesus says to his disciples and the listening crowd, “You have heard it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Why does Jesus want his disciples to love and pray for their enemies? Jesus continues: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” What does loving enemies have to do with being God’s children? Jesus explains: “for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” In other words, quite unlike the God Larson depicts, and quite unlike the enemy-hating world in which the disciples live, God loves his enemies, and he shows his love by making the sun rise on everyone, the good and the bad, and by sending the rain on the good and the bad alike. Jesus concludes by saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Human perfection, Jesus seems to be saying, is nothing other than loving your enemy because God loves his enemies.

In the Gospel of Matthew, this is the first time the disciples gather around Jesus to receive a special teaching. What they won’t realize until much later is that everything that Jesus demands of them in this portion of the Sermon on the Mount is what he himself is doing. Jesus is the one who turns the other cheek when on trial before the Sanhedrin. Jesus is the one gets sued for his coat and gives his cloak as well to be divided among the Roman guards. Jesus is the one who walks the second mile with his cross to the mount of Golgotha. Jesus is the one who gives of himself until the very end of his being, to whoever asks. Jesus is setting the stage here so that his disciples can later realize that God is loving his enemies through what Jesus does in his life. St. Paul will later exclaim, “For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” (Ro. 5:10). Jesus’ earthly life is itself the supreme act of God’s enemy-love, a love which will change everything.

[Page 4] Unlike the disciples in our passage, we have the advantage of hindsight. We can see that God’s love for his enemies culminated in Jesus’ death and resurrection. We can see that the Church has been the place where people gather to learn how to replace their enemy-hatred with love. We can see that through this enemy-love, the powers of this world have been brought low as the Church imitates Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.

What does it mean to love our enemies? In the first place, it means that we have to acknowledge that we have enemies, not just enemies far away, but enemies in our homes, our workplaces, even here at St. Matthew’s. We all have enemies, people who have it out for us, or people we have it out for. Loving our enemies first means acknowledging that we have them.

Second, Jesus says to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” After acknowledging that you have enemies in your life, the next thing to do is pray for them. We might in moments of anger pray that God drop a piano on their heads, and really it’s okay to pray that from time to time. But, if we want to follow Jesus, we have to find ways beyond that vengeance-dream to actually praying for our enemies’ good. This is hard for us, perhaps impossible on our own. But remember that Jesus himself took God’s love for his enemies to its furthest extent – to the point of death. Because Jesus prayed for his enemies with his whole life and prays for his enemies now at the Father’s right hand, we have hope and power. We can pray for our enemies now, too.

Third, from a place of prayer for our enemies, we can learn to uncoil a bit, to relax, to actually be human with the people we are struggling not to hate. From this place of freedom in the enemy-loving God, we are free to turn the other cheek, to give extravagantly, to walk the second mile, to start the journey of perfection that will end with the world restored in the glory of God.

I was told this week that like the Riverdale neighborhood St. Matthew’s has a fighting spirit. We don’t give up when things get tough. We redouble our efforts. What Jesus makes clear today is that we are called to identify and fight our enemies not with violence but with prayer and reconciling service. This is a hard and high calling. Let us embrace it, not giving up but redoubling our efforts to turn our nearby enemies into reconciled neighbours. For God so loved the world that while we were still his enemies, he sent Christ to save us. In response to God’s amazing grace, as our worship continues let us pray for our enemies, come forward to receive God’s reconciling love with our hands, our mouths, and our hearts, and go forth in peace to love and serve the Lord among our neighbours yes, but also, and especially, among our enemies.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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