Ray-Thomas Memorial
Presbyterian Church

Sermons



Love Your Enemies

Luke 6:27-38                    The Rev. Dr. Carrie Benz Scott

I’ve been thinking about the women, one formerly of British citizenship and one of American, who joined ISIS, and have now renounced ISIS and want to return to their former countries. Understandably, neither Britain nor America want them back. Once you’ve joined ISIS, no one can ever be sure you can be trusted again.

What do you think Jesus would say about this? How do you balance compassion for two people against protection of an entire community?

What does the “love your enemies” command mean in this context? In the name of Christ, should Britain and America take these women back, potentially risking the safety of its citizens if the women’s repentance is a mere ploy through which they can do more damage, or is it love enough simply to not kill them or  incarcerate them in retaliation and instead keep them forever in refugee camps where we lovingly send donations of food?  How does “love your enemy” work when our enemies are terrorists?

Scholars have tried to answer that, sort of.  Many have suggested that if we don’t retaliate, if we do not react in revenge, if we do not focus on getting even, then not doing those things qualifies as loving our enemies. Justice can still be love. It’s not a lack of love to ask someone to repent and make amends.

But, you know, it’s interesting, whereas the Ten Commandments phrase most of commands by “thou shalt not,” that’s not what Jesus’ emphasizes here. Yes, there are a few do nots, but for 10 verses before that there are on “do this” – things we can do.

And we can do more than we imagine.

Jesus never commands us to like our enemies or agree with them or agree with those who hate us. But he does call us to do good to them. He calls us to show them something that will surprise and amaze them that is not business as usual. That’s what turning the other cheek and giving up our shirts is about – doing something new and creative that will shift everything.

I know this may seem crazy and no government would ever do it, but imagine  if England and the US  decided to invite those former ISIS women to live among the nuns of Calcutta, or Doctors without Borders, or another group that knows something about grace and mercy and the ways to sacrifice your life that aren’t born out of hatred but out of love and self-giving. What if in time, being among those communities changed them, deeply and profoundly, the way Christ changed Saul, the Pharisee who dragged Christians out of their homes to murder them, into Paul, who brought the Gospel to us Gentiles and lived so eloquently in repentance, grace and love?

Jesus focuses on what we are to do, what we can do, what is possible for us to also do, that is not revenge or retaliation but is something entirely different.  In this shift in focus, it strikes me that Jesus is moving us away from a mentality of “this is the way it is forever and ever”, that whatever issue or hatred or divide we are facing is unchangeable, to a perspective of what else may be possible through God.

What if we approached our enemies with an eye towards what might be possible with God?  I wonder if one of the reasons we are afraid to employ Jesus’ commands is because we don’t quite trust that God will intervene and change hearts.  Might it be that implicit in Jesus’ challenge to love our enemies is a call to trust that with God all things are possible; a call to look to the future rather than simply the past?

There’s a story on Ted talks that captures this. Years ago, after 9-11 there was a man who was so distraught about that attack that he decided to take matters into his own hands. He started a killing spree. He wanted to kill Muslims, Iranians, Mid easterners, the way whoever it was killed so many of us. So one day he went out, targeted people, and shot them. One of those was a young man from Bangladesh. He was here legally, studying and working for a better life – the American dream. He was working in a gas station mini mart when the killer approached. Assuming this was a robbery, the man from Bangladesh opened his cash register drawer. But that didn’t stop the killer. He saw the look in the killer’s eyes. He saw him pull the trigger. And he felt the bullet hit him in the face. He felt the blood, the pain, and he knew if he didn’t fall as if dead the shooter would shoot again. When the shooter left, he ran for help. He survived but blinded in one eye. His family sent all the money they could to pay for his recovery. And he recovered. Two other men were killed that day. None of them were from the Mideast, none of them related to ISIS. But this man was Muslim.  Somehow, he understood the killer’s rage. Somehow, he did not respond to the hate with more hatred. So when the man was convicted and placed on death row, this man joined with others, with Christians, Jews and other Muslims, to try to save his life. The killer found out. Ultimately, the killer and this victim met and talked together. The killer shared how he’d been raised to hate, that he’d been raised with a fear of those who were different, and a desire to keep America pure. He told him that he’d been raised with a sense that he had to protect freedom, but somehow their version of how to protect freedom was a prison – a prison of fear, of anger, of hatred, a prison of revenge and retaliation. Ultimately, the victim and his group were not able to dissuade Texas from executing the killer, but the day the man died, the victim was there beside him. Praying together. It was the most incredible thing, because at the end, the killer, once so filled with hatred for Muslims, called this Muslim man “my brother,” and the last words from his lips were, “I love you.’

Surprising people by mercy, by grace, by love can do incredible things in the hands of God.

We think of these commands in the Sermon on the Plain as too hard for us to meet. But are they, really? Is it really impossible for us to find creative alternatives to revenge and anger? Is it impossible for us to find ways to surprise each other with kindness?

All of us as compassionate people want to forgive those who come to us in sorrow and repentance, with tears in their eyes, asking for mercy and help. It’s the ones who don’t come asking for forgiveness that makes all of this so hard.  

But Jesus never tells us to let ourselves be continually victimized by those who curse us, abuse us or humiliate us. Instead, Jesus tells us to pray for them. Just to pray for them. We may not be able to conjure up a lot of mercy for  some, but we can pray for them. Prayer does things. It changes the ones for whom we pray, and it also changes us.   It opens the door for God to work in our hearts.

Do you remember the parable where Jesus says someone went to a neighbor’s house at night seeking help, and pounded and pounded on the door, and it took practically forever to get the neighbor to get up and respond? Usually we read that and think it’s about how sometimes it feels like we pound on God’s door and it takes forever for God to respond. But the scholar Ken Bailey, who lived and worked in the Middle East and had that culture open his eyes to understand Jesus more profoundly, realized the parable is also about all the times God pounds on our doors, trying to get us to help God.

Jesus is asking us to help by being creative, by keeping doors open, by refusing to burn bridges or condemn each other forever. Just because someone is like this right now, just because right now this situation is like this, just because right now we feel such a such a way, doesn’t mean all those things will remain frozen like that or cannot change. God asks us to keep the door open for new possibilities. It’s not on us to change hearts. That’s what God does. But it is on us to try to protect the young seed God may be sowing, to keep others from trampling it, to not trample it ourselves.

Love your enemies.
Do good to those who hate you.
Bless those who curse you.
Pray for those who humiliate you.
Forgive and you will be forgiven.

Do this, Jesus urges. Help keep the door open to what is possible with God, who believes all of us, all of us, should get a second chance.

All with ears to hear, hear. Amen.

 



Deserts

Luke 3:1-6                                                                    The Rev. Dr. Carrie Benz Scott

 

This time of year I’m always a little frustrated by the Lectionary. I want to get onto Christmas and the lectionary always brings us to John the Baptist. Our culture has kind of left John the Baptist at the wayside. We’re ready for Christmas the minute the turkey has been put away. And we’re ready for the carols and the cards and all of it.

Even though we joke about those cards. We’ve all received them – the ones that go something like this:

Dear Loved Ones,
It’s been a wonderful year for us in every way. Our youngest grandchild graduated magna cum laude from kindergarten. Her teenage brother rode his bicycle across Australia with Lance Armstrong, leaving Lance in the dust, of course. And you remember our daughter, who once looked so adorable in pigtails. One day this past year, she received the Nobel Prize for Physics, won the Pillsbury Bake-Off, and gave birth to triplets. As for ourselves, we are blessed with great teeth, flat abdomens, and wrinkle-free complexions. We very much enjoyed our private audience with the Pope in the spring.

I always wondered what would happen if we brought a little John the Baptist into a Christmas card. Can you imagine receiving this?

Dear Holiday Friends,

I’ve been thinking about all that’s wrong with the world. The Saudi Prince apparently ordered that journalists’ death. Who knows what Mueller is turning up, but the tweets of everyone from POTUS on down are troubling. Then there’s climate change and our strange desire to look at it economically rather than ecologically. I guess in the face of this I should have the integrity to admit that I lied to the church when they asked about my 10%. And I might have accidently walked off with a few extra groceries at the bottom of my shopping cart and not bothered to go back inside to pay. I’ve come to the conclusion that John the Baptist was right. We need to repent. Repent. Repent. Repent. So. Meet you at the river! Merry Christmas.

I doubt of any of us will be sending out John the Baptist greetings any time soon, but still, at least some of the cards we share may bear a little of what John wanted us to see, and of what Luke wants us to see as we remember the story.   They wanted us to see something about the way of the Lord, the highway of the Lord. A few years back, I noticed a card my mom had received from a childhood neighbor  - a mother of one of my childhood friends. I learned she was in a rest home, so the next year I sent her a card, and then she me, and there was an exchange of memories in the bonds of that love and friendship that somehow last through time and space. We kept it up until she passed, and those cards meant something to each of us, as we claimed the memories, and the connections. Embedded among the bragging cards are the cards that remind us of the faith, hope, love, courage and resilience of our fellow travelers on this road that John lifts up.

You know as well as I, there are roads and there are roads. There are the physical roads, like I-75, that take us from Point A to Point B (or at least try to, traffic notwithstanding). But then there are the roads that matter even more, the roads that take us to places no physical road can, the spiritual roads or paths that take us deeper in faith and love, that lead us to revelation and transformation.

 

Luke is always very careful to point out what was happening in history whenever he wrote. He knew history made a difference. It made a difference in what we see and pay attention to. In our own lifetimes, we know, we remember the difference between the times when JFK was President, and then Lyndon Johnson. The eulogies about the late President Bush lifted up the differences between then and now, the times with that President and todays. The context matters in what we see, notice, pay attention to.

 

Two thousand years ago, with John the Baptist, it wasn’t just the context that made a difference. The desert, the wilderness mattered too.  Back then, in that part of the world, everyone knew about desert wilderness. They knew that they had to be careful about mirages. In the desert, people would see things that were not there. It can be hard to tell what’s real from what’s fake. When you are traveling in the desert, you know this. The trouble is, when we’re not in the desert, we forget that there are also mirages in our lives. Sometimes we don’t see reality; what we see may not be real. It happens in relationships, when suddenly one partner is blindsided because the other says it’s over. One just didn’t see it coming. It happens in jobs. Employees think they are secure, that they are doing work, and suddenly one day – boom – they are let go. They just didn’t see it coming. It happens with our health, too. Suddenly, boom. We didn’t see it coming. In the desert we know we’re surrounded by mirages. But when we’re back on our regular paths we forget, and we get blindsided.

 

Luke says in the midst of this very real and ever changing, ever challenging world, with mirages all around, with leaders whom some call great and others call disasters, the salvation highway of our God is being constructed. But everyone’s eyes were on the regular roads. Caesar’s wife had begun a “Highway Beautification” initiative.  They wanted their roads to be grand, so their trade routes could be prosperous. Everyone was paying attention to those roads.

But not one of those roads could really take you where God’s highway takes us.  They could take you around the world, but none of them could save the world.  John knew the best way to focus on that road was to go to the wilderness, to the spiritual desert where you could begin to sort through mirage from truth, where you could withdraw in order to see.  

Sometimes we go intentionally.  And sometimes we are thrust into it, in hospitals or emergency rooms.

The desert changes people.

There’s no place to hide or survive on your own. You have to depend on each other and God or you won’t make it. The desert strips away all that is superfluous, illusory, fake. And it is where God does the radical work of reformation and transformation…where we are permanently changed.

We can all name the desert times in our lives, and sometimes we even hunger for them. Status quo isn’t enough. We want something deeper. In those times, I believe God is calling us.  God is calling us  to pay attention, to open our hearts and souls for God, for God is afoot.

It’s important to remember Israel emerged from that kind of wilderness, not from fat of the land. The days when they were rich with the fat of the land became the days which drew Israel away from God and rose up false prophets – those prophets that congratulated Israel’s piety, power, and majesty but ignored the plight of the poor and needy. But when life turned, and they were thrown back into deserts, finally, eventually, after wandering around in circles, sure nothing good could happen, questioning everything and everyone, finally, finally, the promised land would emerge on the horizon.

John called the people into the desert. He called them to return to a place away from Caesar and Pilate and the rest. He called them to a place where they could regain their clarity of vision, where truth telling could happen, where they could learn to listen again.

He commanded repent, repent, but mostly because repentance is a door to forgiveness, to getting us back on the highway to our God rather than the highway to all the things that in the end will fail.

The challenge of Christmas in our culture is to manage to keep Christmas, to stay on the road that is the highway of our God, the road where love and faith and hope all meet and walk with us. And this means somehow keeping some desert time amid the chaos, of withdrawing in holy silence now and then to remember. Even maybe to pause when we give or receive cards, to hold the people they represent in prayer, in our hearts, to see past all the things the Caesars and Pilates bring, and claim the things the Messiah brings.

 

There is a highway beckoning us. And it’s not  I-75.

 

All with ears to hear, hear. Amen.

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