This year for Lent, we are looking at the different things we can “give up” that have more to do with our heart and minds than our habits and waistlines.
Giving up control – expectations – superiority – and today, our enemies.
Enemies are interesting to ponder… I wonder, do we really have enemies? I mean, what does an enemy look like for average people who live in the outer suburbs, who go to work, send the kids to school, fill their days with volunteer work and running their households.
An enemy is technically someone for whom we feel enmity.
And enmity is: a feeling or condition of hostility, hatred, ill will, animosity or antagonism. Other synonyms are: friction, bitterness, resentment, malice, spite.
And THAT’s a pond we’ve all dipped our toes into if not taken a full dive into at some point!
And perhaps for good reason. Because, when we are wronged, when we are victims, how else are we to respond? After all, we are people with dignity, with feelings, protective of those we love, defenders of deeply held beliefs. So, antagonism, friction, resentment, etc., are all…normal, right?
Sure, but the thing is, if we swim in that cold pond long enough – what happens? You start to get used to the water!
So what to do with these feelings and these situations? We can’t just do nothing! Some situations require / demand a response – of some sort at least!
Well, enter Jesus…
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well…
And not only that but:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven;
Let me pause right here with a little aside / insert…. These words of Jesus are NOT saying that it is okay to be hit, shoved or controlled by someone else – whether in our homes and families, or at school or work. It is never God’s will / desire / command that anyone be treated in this way. And when these words are used to justify violence, THAT is a violation of God’s Word.
Here, Jesus is trying to break the cycle of violence that was in place, and replace it with a whole new framework and language for those who are in enmity with each other.
To remain in situations that consist of back and forths, and keeping track, and keeping score, and measuring who’s insult was more hurtful… is this what Jesus wants for those who follow him? Or for anyone?
He doesn’t just want to clean up or warm up the cold pond of resentment and antagonism and bad feelings between people; he wants us to swim in a completely different pond altogether.
Which is hard to do! Because you know how when you’ve gotten used to the cold water so that it’s not really cold anymore? And then you get out? Even though the sun may be warm on your skin, there is still that moment when you step up and out… the sudden shock and sting of the air. And even though you know you’ll be in a warmer place soon enough, there’s no way around that moment of harsh vulnerability.
It’s hard to change – and not just change how we act and behave, but our hearts as well – because that’s where the transformation needs to take place to get to the place of peace that God promises for us, that Jesus lays out before us.
When we hold onto resentments and animosity, we cannot ourselves experience the full measure of God’s love. A heart full of anger and hatred has little room in it for the love of God. And yet, I believe it is only God’s love that can truly overcome the force of a hurtful heart.
You know – Jesus doesn’t hold up this new way of life in order to make our lives difficult. But what he brings is co completely different from the world around us – the pond in which we are used to swimming in – that it is HARD.
Which is why I think we need to begin with Jesus’ suggestion to pray – and, in particular, to pray for those who we resent, who annoy us, who threaten us even. In other words – our enemies. And by praying for our enemies, we’re not to pray that something bad will happen to them, that they’ll finally get what’s coming to them. It also doesn’t’ mean praying that they will come to see things our way, or that they will change so that we can get along with them better. It means we are to pray for their good.
Loving our enemies, praying for those who are against us, is not just a lofty pie-in-the-sky ideal – it is actually and really transformative. And that means it really changes things.
Remember, we are created in love (by God) to love others. And so we love our enemies by not opposing them but by praying for them. And, in so doing, we rise to the level of love that seeks to defeat evil, not the person who is caught up in it. We begin to love our enemies, not because they are likeable, but because God loves them too.
And as we do, we begin to see them as God sees them, and we find we are being transformed into the likeness of the one who loves us so much, he died so that we might be free from hatred and its consequences.
But, along with transforming us, loving our enemies can sometimes transform our enemies, not because we need them to change or want them to change, but because through extending Christ-like love, they too experience the power of God’s transforming love.
Abraham Lincoln once said, “The best way to destroy an enemy is make them a friend.” Now Lincoln was a man who practiced what he preached. When he was running for president, there was a man who went all over the country running him down. He said a lot of bad things about Lincoln, a lot of unkind things. And sometimes he even stooped to saying things about his looks like, “You don’t want a tall, lanky, ignorant man like this as the president of the United States.” His disparaging remarks seem to have no limits.
But despite all this, Lincoln was, as you know, elected President. Once he took office and it came time to appoint his cabinet, Lincoln contemplated who would make the best Secretary of War and decided on Mr. Edwin M. Stanton, the very man who had made all those derogatory comments about him. His advisors couldn’t believe it.
“Mr. Lincoln, are you a fool? Do you know what Mr. Stanton has been saying about you? Do you know that he has tried to defeat you on every hand? Haven’t you read all those things he said about you?” Abraham Lincoln stood before the advisors around him and said: “Oh yes, I know about it; I read about it; I’ve heard him myself. But after considering all my options, I find that he is the best man for the job.”
Mr. Stanton did become Secretary of War and, unfortunately, not too much later, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. However, one of the greatest statements ever made about Abraham Lincoln was made by Stanton.
Because when Abraham Lincoln died he is the man who said: “Now he belongs to the ages.” You see, they had not only become friends, but Stanton had come to revere the great man. If Lincoln had hated Stanton, Stanton would likely have gone to his grave hating Lincoln. But through the power of love Stanton the enemy was transformed into Stanton the friend.
(Adapted from Loving Your Enemies Sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King. http://mlk- kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_loving_your_enemies/ )
It would be naive of me not to mention the political situation we’re in right now. I’ve heard and seen plenty of ill will, antagonism, resentment, malice to know that this word from the Lord applies directly to us. And I invite you to put on the mind of Christ and swim in the other pond as you interact with others on political matters these days.
And lastly, the reason we should love our enemies is because it is this kind of love that will transform the world.
In his book Eager to Love Franciscan priest Richard Rohr makes the following comment about what it means to be a Christian. “(Being) … a follower of Jesus…. is an option, a choice, a call, a vocation, and we are totally free to say yes or no or maybe. You do not have to do this to make God love you. That is already taken care of. You do it to love God back and to love what (and who) God loves and how God loves! (Eager to Love, Richard Rohr)
And I invite you to practice this right now. Think of someone who bugs you, annoys you, to whom you feel resentment, or animosity. That’s the person you’re going to pray for this week.
If you knew everything about me you wouldn’t listen to me…and if I knew everything about you, I wouldn’t talk to you…which is why Jesus gave us better rules. (Tony Campolo)