Kay Spiritual Life Center
October 18, 2015
Psalm 55, Matthew 5:38-48
Audio available here.
Psalm 55 • For the music leader. With stringed instruments. A maskil of David. God, listen to my prayer; don’t avoid my request! Pay attention! Answer me! I can’t sit still while complaining. I’m beside myself over the enemy’s noise, at the wicked person’s racket, because they bring disaster on me and harass me furiously. My heart pounds in my chest because death’s terrors have reached me. Fear and trembling have come upon me; I’m shaking all over. I say to myself, I wish I had wings like a dove! I’d fly away and rest. I’d run so far away! I’d live in the desert. Selah I’d hurry to my hideout, far from the rushing wind and storm. Baffle them, my Lord! Confuse their language because I see violence and conflict in the city. Day and night they make their rounds on its walls, and evil and misery live inside it. Disaster lives inside it; oppression and fraud never leave the town square. It’s not an enemy that is insulting me—I could handle that. It’s not someone who hates me who is exalted over me—I could hide from them. No. It’s you, my equal, my close companion, my good friend! It was so pleasant when together we entered God’s house with the crowd. Let death devastate my enemies; let them go to the grave alive because evil lives with them—even inside them! But I call out to God, and the Lord will rescue me. At evening, morning, and midday I complain and moan so that God will hear my voice. He saves me, unharmed, from my struggle, though there are many who are out to get me. God, who is enthroned from ancient days, will hear and humble them Selah because they don’t change and they don’t worship God. My friend attacked his allies, breaking his covenant. Though his talk is smoother than butter, war is in his heart; though his words are more silky than oil, they are really drawn swords: “Cast your burden on the Lord—he will support you! God will never let the righteous be shaken!” But you, God, bring the wicked down to the deepest pit. Let bloodthirsty and treacherous people not live out even half their days. But me? I trust in you!
Matthew 5:38-48 • “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. 41 When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.
I. Introduction: “What is love?”
Earlier on in the semester, I gave you the chance to submit your own “Big Question” to our fall sermon series, and many of you took me up on that. One person submitted that eternal and pressing question, “What is love (baby, don’t hurt me)?” And if I had to go back and rename the sermon that I’m going to preach tonight, I’d probably name it “What is love — baby, don’t hurt me no more.”
In a sense, our question tonight is easy to answer. Do I have to love my annoying roommate? Probably yes. For folks who want to claim the moniker of Christian, or who at least have some inkling that this Jesus character is worth listening to, then yes. Jesus not only tells us to love our neighbors as we God and our very selves, but in this passage from the famous Sermon on the Mount, tells us to love our enemies. It turns out loving people who it’s rather difficult to love is sort of a big part of what makes someone a follower of Jesus.
But what is love? What does it actually mean to love someone when you’re having a hard time even liking them? And even more difficult — what does it mean to love when it’s not just someone who grates on our nerves, but someone who has genuinely hurt us, or wants to hurt us?
Do people who experience abuse have to love their abuser? Do those who lost loved ones in the recent U.S. bombing of a Doctors without Borders hospital in Afghanistan have to love the people who gave the bombing order? Do we have to love ISIS?
Once you sit with it for a bit, the question of who Christians do and do not have to love raises a lot of challenges.
II. Love Your Enemies?
As it turns out, the authors of our scriptures are well-versed in the realities of hurt, betrayal, and violence. Psalm 55, which we heard read tonight, is one of many lament Psalms. In it the psalmist cries out against people who wish them harm and against former friends who have betrayed their trust. The psalmist doesn’t hold back their feelings of anguish or even their words of vengeance. Instead, they call on God to “cast their enemies down into the lowest pit.” What’s more, we know from the psalm’s “superscription” — words in the original Hebrew that tell us about its composition and give directions for musicians –that this psalm was used in communal worship. People sang this together — more than a private prayer of lament, it was a public venting of pain and grievance.
It’s easy to think of passages like Psalm 55 as somewhat embarrassing relics of our religious past, a call for the sort of sectarian violence that we — we who hold interfaith services, who are comfortable with differences in religious belief, who oppose violent extremism in any form — have managed to progress beyond. Yet the early Christian theologian Athanasius once called the psalms “the mirror of the soul.” And if we are honest with ourselves, I suspect many of us would have to admit Athanasius is right — when we feel betrayal, or fear, or shame it is not so easy to talk about loving those who have made us feel such things. We hold Psalm 55 up in front of us and it shows us ourselves — wrinkles and desire-for-vengeance and all.
But then there are Jesus’ words, seemingly so hard and unbending: “love your enemies and pray for those who harass you,” because — and here’s the real kicker — because that’s how God acts. How do you argue with that?
Tonight, I don’t want to blunt, or sugercoat, or dodge around the difficulty of Jesus’ words. This is a hard teaching, and one that cannot simply be brushed aside, for it lies at the very center of the distinctive witness of Christianity. This is, after all, the Sermon on the Mount — a piece of biblical literature that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, referred to as “the noblest compendium of religioun which is to be found even in the oracles of God.”[i]
So what does it mean to love those who we don’t want to love?
III. Guidelines for Enemy-Love
The text gives us some clues. First, it starts with prayer — the first example of enemy-love that Jesus gives is to pray for those who attack you. As trite as such advice sometimes seems, it’s still often the best we’ve got. Having a hard time loving someone? Pray for them. Having a hard time praying for them? Pray for the ability to pray for them. Having a hard time doing that? Pray for the ability to pray for the ability to pray for them. We have to start where we are. And given that we start wherever we are, it is perhaps helpful to remember that the book of Psalms is the prayer book of the Bible — that when we are in pain, praying out loud our lament, even our feelings of rage and revenge, is an acceptable prayer. In Hebrew, the book of Psalms is called tehiliim, which means “praises.” Even a psalm like the one we heard tonight, a psalm that emerges from anger and betrayal, can be praise. So begin where we are, and begin with prayer.
Second, the text enjoins us to act with equity. Jesus’ words in this passage indicate that we are to love those who are difficult to love because God treats all people, the righteous and the unrighteous alike, with the same sort of grace and provision. We don’t have to be best friends with everyone, nor approve of the way everyone around us acts, but we are called to act with a level of charity, mercy, and care. That’s what is supposed to set followers of Jesus apart — they will know we are Christians by our love. Practically, this might mean not spreading rumors or gossip about someone, not lying or exaggerating or talking behind someone’s back. At a different level, this might mean committing to nonviolence when working against injustice. An accurate reading of the early part of tonight’s gospel would be: “Do not use violence to resist an evildoer.” [ii] This doesn’t mean not resisting injustice — Jesus’ whole life, his whole ministry, can be read as a resistance to injustice and as a living out of God’s dream of liberation. But it does mean committing to a radically different form of resistance. And in order to do that, we’re going to have to go back to point number one, and start with prayer.
Third, Jesus indicates that love of enemies is an aspect of being what our translation this evening called “complete”: “Therefore, just as your heavenly Father/Mother is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.” Other translations read “perfect” rather than “complete.” Enemy-love is the completion, the perfection — a good way of saying it would be “the coming into full bloom” — of the Christian life. In the Methodist tradition, such full bloom is understood to come to us by God’s grace, not by any spectacular human effort. Few people make claims of perfection or completion in their journeys of faith — and I’m suspicious of any who do. So, again, we pray — we pray for God’s love to continue to grow in us, and we do the best we can, knowing that mistakes will be made along the way. We pray in thanksgiving that God is able to do what we, sometimes, cannot – love those who it is difficult to love.
III. An Underlying Reality of Connection
I am dissatisfied with my own interpretation of tonight’s passage, fundamentally uneasy with the idea that I could explain to you — in 3 points, no less — how to live out this teaching of Jesus. Maybe if the issue really was just annoying roommates or bad drivers, that would be enough. But what about the reality of trauma, violence, and abuse? What about the oppressive Roman occupiers of Jesus’ day, or the mass shooter, the violent assailant, the vitriolic bigot of ours? How could we love those of whom we would rather say, in the words of the psalmist: “Bring the wicked down to the deepest pit! Let bloodthirsty and treacherous people not live out even half their days!”
In her book Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome, [iii] author Reba Riley recounts her journey to heal from harmful experiences with the church of her youth. At some point in her journey, she stumbles on the image of a disco ball. Reflecting light in many ways, each facet of the ball is part of a whole with each other facet — and yet, as Riley comes to understand, it is ok for her to exist on the far side of the disco ball from those who trigger her or put obstacles in the way of her path to healing. She doesn’t have to hate or to cut herself off – she can recognize the ways she is connected the church of her past but she can also find some distance, and thus, some healing, from harmful experiences. She can care for herself without expending energy on those who have hurt her.
The truth that Jesus points us to is that we are all connected, all part of a whole together — we are watered by the same rain, illuminated by the same sun. And this is true even of those who do their damndest to disrupt that connection — who seek to isolate, to alienate, or to violate.
To love is, at least in part, to live into this underlying reality of connection. To care for ourselves, to care for those around us, to care for this planet — this, our shared home.
It’s not easy, but it is true religion:
To love, even when it is difficult.
In doing so, to not harm ourselves either, but to see ourselves as loved.
To see ourselves, as perhaps we might dare to believe that God sees us:
Somehow, by grace, even in the midst of brokenness and fragmentation, complete.
IV. Conclusion: Gathered Around The Table
And so, we gather around this table. We come here, not because we have everything figured out, not because we already know how to love those who it is difficult to love, but because we do not. We come to this table, seeking Christ, the one loves us even when we are convinced we deserve no such thing. We come confessing that we often do not know how best to love – and we come in hope that it is Christ who meets us here, with words of love and forgiveness. We come to this table, because it is at a table that Jesus gathered with friends – even when he knew that betrayal, hurt, and violence were at hand.
[i] Quoted in The Sermon on the Mount through the Centuries, edited by Jeffrey P. Greenman, et. al. (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007), 153.
[ii] Warren Carter, “Notes to Matthew,” in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), 1756
[iii] Reba Riley, Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome (Howard Books, 2015).