March 05, 2023
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
This past week my wife, Susan, and Pastor Eric and Pastor Mindie attended a conference in St. Louis. Driving home they passed this billboard off I-70 (pic). So according to that sign, our passage of scripture this morning goes right to the heart of what it means to be a real Christian. And if you don’t believe me, just call 855 FOR TRUTH.
During this season of Lent we are considering some of the questions Jesus asks. Today’s question is taken from this challenging text we just heard: “For if you love only those who love you, what reward do you have?” (CEV)
This is a question of compassion. I would suppose that compassion for most of us makes us think of acts of mercy like caring for someone who is sick. But the heart of the word compassion is, obviously, passion. Passion comes from a Latin word that means suffer. That is why we talk about the passion of Jesus, it means the suffering of Jesus. Therefore compassion means “to suffer with.” That can mean a couple of things: sharing someone else’s suffering, or putting up with someone who causes us suffering.
Its this second idea that would have been a foreign concept in Jesus’ day. Suffering other people’s abuse, persecution, meanness, or rudeness would have been illogical and even offensive. After all, if you show compassion for someone who mistreats you are you not condoning and even fostering the mistreatment?
Jesus’ question doesn’t deny the difficulty of such love, but it does invite a different consideration. “If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have?” What is the reward of loving people who are hard to love? That’s what we are thinking about today.
This passage of scripture comes at the end of a section of the Sermon on the Mount known as the Antitheses, six sections where Jesus begins, “You have heard it said,” and then quotes an Old Testament law, and continues, “But I say to you…” Then he reinterprets the law, in a way that is, frankly, an even higher demand.
The sixth of these antithesis sums up all the ones before it. Jesus says, “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemies.” Pause there for a moment. The first one clearly comes from scripture. Loving your neighbor is in the Book of Leviticus, BUT! It didn’t really mean love for all people. It was intended to mean, “Love your fellow Israelites,” or at least that’s how it came to be interpreted. So in the story about the rich, young ruler who asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” He wasn’t being contrary. He was asking a question he was taught to ask.
But it’s the next part of Jesus “You’ve heard it said” quote that’s interesting. Hate your enemies. That’s not in the scriptures. That is something that developed by religious tradition that taught we should hate those who are opposed to God’s ways.
Interesting isn’t it, that religious tradition can make it okay to hate? But in fairness, people who lived by this tradition would have said, “We don’t hate people, just their behaviors.” It’s like folks today who say, “We should love the sinner, but hate the sin.” Well let me ask you, how easy is it for you to love and hate at the same time? Especially when you’re talking about the same person?
Now we don’t need to debate the merit of this idea, Jesus takes care of that for us when he says, “But I say to you: Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.” Now, isn’t that better? Isn’t that a lot softer and easier? Isn’t that a much more appealing rule to live by?
I want you try something with me for a moment. Close your eyes. You definitely need to close your eyes for this exercise and tune out all distraction. I want you to think of someone who hurt you. Maybe someone recently or someone long ago. Perhaps its someone you haven’t thought of in a while. Picture that person. Recall what they did. What do you feel as you think about that person? Pay attention to what’s happening with your body as you think of that person. Now I want to ask you, can you show that person love?
Open your eyes. If you aren’t sure about your answer, then you feel the gravity of Jesus’ words. And if your response is to ask, “What does love even look like in a situation like that? Then you’re thinking along a way Jesus would have us. How do we love an enemy?
For one thing, it’s worth pointing out that We don’t have to like in order to love.
Martin Luther King Jr said, “We should be happy that (Jesus) did not say, ‘like your enemies.’ Its almost impossible to like some people. ‘Like’ is a sentimental and affectionate word. How can we be affectionate toward a person whose avowed aim is to crush our very being and place innumerable blocks in our path? How can we like a person who is threatening our children and bombing our homes? This is impossible. But Jesus recognized that love is greater than like.” (Strength to Love, p50)
Indeed it is. The love of which Jesus speaks is no less than the love of God who causes the sun to rise on the evil as well as the good, who sends rain upon the just and unjust. God shows compassion for all God’s children because God is willing to suffer us, to put up with what is not lovable about us.
So one of the things loving an enemy means is Not repaying in kind the treatment we have received. When we love an enemy we refuse to ridicule the other. We refuse to run down. We refuse to harm, belittle, berate, or seek their ruin. Frankly it means we refuse to let our enemies make us like them, and the greatest retaliation we can take is to respond to wrongs done to us with love for the other.
This is what the ancient proverb meant in saying, “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat, and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink, for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the LORD will reward you.” (Proverbs 25:21-22) Nothing can take from us the ability to be kind and show mercy. Only we can give that up ourselves.
Something else loving the enemy means is Not Canceling the Other. This is not a popular concept in a “cancel culture,” in which the immediate response when someone offends us is to cancel them out, unfriend them, block them, remove them. Now, understand this doesn’t mean we have to remain in relationship as we always have. But there’s a difference between removing ourselves and canceling the other. You never know what can change over time and how a string of connection can be a lifeline to a person down the road.
And, then, as Jesus advises, we must Pray for Our Enemies. This may sound easy, but it can create more discomfort than you think, because when we pray for someone we pray for their good. We pray for their welfare and when we do this something happens to us. We begin to see the enemy as a human being, as a person like us in need of love and comfort.
This is a profound experience because when we see an enemy as human we realize that when a person wounds others that individual is a wounded person. People are not born to hurt. Something wrong has happened to that person. As the old saying goes “hurting people hurt people.” That is a person in need of compassion whether they recognize it or not. Prayer changes us as much as the other person. Prayer connects us to the person who hurt us, and we find that it is impossible to hate someone we begin to feel compassion for.
But all this raises a very important question: Why? Why do this? Why love our enemy who doesn’t deserve our love? One reason is that our world needs greater compassion. Our world is so split with hatreds and divisions and stands desperately in need of courageous souls willing to help bridge the divides.
It reminds me of the story about the “Door of Reconciliation” (pic) in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland. In 1492, the same year Columbus arrived in America, a fight broke out between two feuding families. One of the families retreated to the basement of the cathedral where they locked themselves into a room. The other family followed and begged them to come out to make peace. The ones inside said, “Right! As soon as we open this door you’ll try to kill us all.” So the family on the outside, cut a whole in the door big enough to put your hand through. The leader knew if he did they may try to cut off his hand, but he took the risk, and someone on the inside shook it and they opened the door.
That door has been preserved on display as a reminder that reconciliation often involves risk.
But this is exactly what our world is desperately in need of today, people willing to risk for the sake of dissolving polarization and division mongering. At the 2020 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington the keynote address was given by Harvard professor, Arthur Brooks. He said, “the biggest crisis facing our nation (is) the crisis of contempt and polarization that’s tearing our societies apart.” And he called this crisis “the greatest opportunity we have ever had as people of faith to lift our nations up and to bring our people together.”
Then he focused on what he called Jesus’ subversive and counter-intuitive command to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Remember he was talking to the president, vice-president and hundreds of politicians in the room. He asked, “How many of you love somebody with whom you disagree politically? …Make it personal, my friends…Jesus didn’t say, ‘tolerate your enemies.’ He said, ‘love your enemies.’ Answer hatred with love.”
And then closed with this challenge:“Ask God to give you the strength to do this hard thing, to go against your human nature, to follow Jesus’ teaching…Ask God to take political contempt from your heart. Sometimes, when it’s just too hard, ask God to help you fake it.” (from Jim Harnish blog “The Day the President Told the Truth” Feb. 12, 2020)
Sometimes I know I make loving others way too hard. I wait until I feel love for someone before showing it, and guess what, faking it counts. You know why? Showing love can lead to feeling love. And someone else receiving love, regardless of the feelings behind it, can lead to them becoming more loving.
The reward of not just loving those who love us is that we participate in a resistance movement that pushes back against the vitriol and hatred around us. But another reason for loving this way, and one that is much more personal, is that We need to love this way!
Jesus gives the reason for us to love our enemy: “so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Some interpret that sentence to mean that only when we love like Jesus can we merit the status of being children of God. But some scholars say that’s not it at all. Jesus is recognizing that we are already children of God. We already have that high status. What he’s doing is teaching what it means to act like children of God.
There is a silly old movie called King Ralph in which the entire Royal Family gathers for a photograph and is killed in a freak electrical accident. Researchers go to work to find who is next in line to inherit the throne, and much to their surprise it is an American named Ralph Jones, played by John Goodman. He’s a fired lounge singer in Las Vegas. So he moves to Buckingham Palace (pic of John Goodman) but he is uncouth and boorish, but he has a valet played by Peter O’Toole who teaches him what it means to act like royalty.
This is what Jesus comes to do. He comes as the servant from heaven to teach us what it means to act like royalty; to act as children of the King of heaven and earth. This life is not easy and not always comfortable, but its what we need so that we don’t become something less than what we are created to be.
To quote Dr. King again, he said, “I have decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to (our) problems. For I have seen too much hate… to want to hate, myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to the faces (of others) and their personalities, and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love.” (https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/where-do-we-go-here)
I don’t feel its inappropriate to say that loving our enemy and praying for those who persecute us is personally rewarding. But that’s a good reason.
When Pastor Mindie and I were working on this message the other day she shared about how she experienced this truth in a personal way, and while I knew the Midtown community would get to hear her story, I thought we should hear it at North Indy as well…
Some of you know the story of my upbringing but if you don’t, the short version is that I lost my mom at a very young age and then experienced emotional abuse from my dad’s second wife for most of my childhood. It was abuse that he knew about and allowed to happen. And you can imagine that this caused a LOT of understandable, earned anger and (although this feels like a strong word to use in church) even hatred on my end.
For years, even after I left that situation, I carried around this anger toward my dad that was ready to ignite at any moment. It made me bitter and hard as a person. It created a wound that sometimes still gets bumped up against. And the thought of LOVING this person who didn’t love me, who had caused harm in my life…that seemed impossible. It actually seemed a little unfair. Because from where I was coming from, my understanding of what it meant to LOVE someone was that you reconciled. That you had a relationship. And honestly, I heard that from friends, I heard it from people at church, and I didn’t know what to do with the fact that it didn’t feel right.
But even though that full reconciliation didn’t feel like the right way to love, the total absence of love didn’t feel right either. I mean, I could sift through the anger and resentment and no matter how hard I tried, no matter how much I wanted to- I couldn’t find Jesus in any of it. I couldn’t find Jesus giving me permission to hate this person. A lifetime of Bad blood toward my dad was not a viable option if I was going to keep growing in my faith. The two things just conflicted over and over.
And so in the middle of that, in a really complicated journey to move beyond that angry destructive place, what I found wasn’t a restored relationship, but it WAS a way to forgive and have boundaries that made that forgiveness healthy and healing. You know Pastor Rob talked about the risk of reconciliation, and sometimes that risk just starts inside of us. That’s spiritual work that we have to do. It’s actually really scary to let go of anger because anger is energizing. It protects us. Forgiveness, compassion, mercy…those things are a lot more vulnerable.
But even though it was vulnerable and even though it was scary…what I found as I did that work, to move beyond rage to some kind of love, even if it was a type of love that I wasn’t super familiar with or hadn’t experienced before…was that I started to heal.
But I’ll be honest, even through the healing, if you had asked me what my biggest fear was, I would have told you without any hesitation that it wasn’t heights, it wasn’t spiders, it was the prospect of seeing my dad in real life again. Because this was the one thing I was sure I would not be able to get through. I don’t think in my deepest place of fear that I even thought that God could handle this one. It just felt too big. And I figured all the work of healing would come undone the minute we were in the same room.
And then, two years ago, I had to face that fear at my grandma’s funeral. Zack and I pulled up to the church and I truly didn’t know if I could go in. I have never felt that level of fear and anxiety in my life.
But we did go in. And here’s how I know that Jesus is at work and that this whole question he’s asking us is actually possible in real life- I saw my dad. The biggest wounding I’ve ever experienced. The hardest thing I’ve ever forgiven. And I gave him an awkward hug. I made some small talk. And I felt compassion towards him. The thing I NEVER thought could have been possible, to stand in the same room and not be absolutely lit up with pain and anger and fury- that thing was happening.
So yeah, I do think there’s a reward for loving the people who are difficult, who we consider our enemies, or who have caused us pain. And sometimes they get to experience the benefit of it, but most of the time it’s more about what is happening inside our souls and between us and God. We might not always have an experience like the one I did- that was an incredible gift that I don’t take for granted ever. But whether or not we have that face to face confirmation of healing, we can experience the fruit of a life that is anchored on love. That’s the life that Jesus calls us to and helps make a reality.