Love Your Enemies with Jesus-Love

A Sermon observing the Feast of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Who is your enemy? Frank Griswold, a retired Presiding Bishop, tells the story about a time when, as a parish priest, he walked into the church's chapel to preside at a weekday Eucharist. The only other person who came that day was a man totally opposed to just about everything Frank said, did or stood for. Neither of them enjoyed being in each other's company very much. At times, it even felt to Frank like this man was . . . his enemy. At the exchange of the Peace, Frank says, they realized the error of their ways and, finally, they reconciled.

That's a nice story, but what about people who feel like our enemies but do not come to church? What about people who are antagonistic towards us, who do not share our basic beliefs about religion or politics? And what about those people who feel dangerous, who seem to be ready to harm us, others or themselves?

Tomorrow, on his 82nd birthday, all across the nation we will remember the life and witness of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who surely knew about enemies. Today, here at All Saints', we keep the feast of Dr. King, using the lessons appointed by the Episcopal Church to honor and remember him. How fitting it is that the gospel lesson for Dr. King's day is about loving enemies – one of the most challenging teachings in all of Holy Scripture.

An enemy, of course, is not a friend. Based on the Latin amicus, "enemy" literally means "non-friend," someone who is not amicable, not our amigo. An enemy is an adversary, someone who, Webster's says, is "harmful or deadly," who "seeks to injure or overthrow." Why, our best logic wants to know, why would we want to love our enemies? What sense does that make?

There are enemies of state, like Adolf Hitler or Osama bin Laden. Was Jesus talking about them? And to whom was Jesus talking, anyway? You may know that this tough teaching is part of a talk he gave called "The Sermon on the Mount" in Matthew, or "The Sermon on the Plain" in Luke. That sermon, which comprises thirty verses in Luke and more than a hundred in Matthew, has two main themes: reject privilege, nourished by wealth; and reject retaliation, fed by violence. These themes, of course, oppose the assumptions that shaped culture and society then . . . and still does, today. After all, it's basic human nature to say to ourselves: Give up privilege or revenge? Love your enemies? I don't think so.

Yet both Matthew and Luke also contain what we have come to call the Golden Rule: "Do to others, as you would have them do to you" (Luke 6:31). Again, it's basic human nature to say, "It's really ‘He who has the Gold, Rules' or "Do to others before they do it to you." Of course, Jesus was not talking about "doing it" to anyone. Jesus was talking – to those who would listen – about a new attitude, a new response, a new way of living and forgiving. He did this by going far beyond the teachings of his day or any day. Seventeen centuries before Christ, there was the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, from which comes the phrase "an eye for an eye." It gave victims the right to compensation, but it limited retaliation. Contrast this with Jesus' saying, "turn the other cheek," in which he suggests a new code – non-retaliation – breaking the cycle of violence.

It is this kind of non-retaliatory, non-violent behavior that shaped and formed the life of Martin Luther King and so many others who walked with him. At lunch counters and in the streets, non-violent resistance – loving your enemies – was the order of the day. As a teenager I didn't have a clue about Dr. King's enemies until I went to a rally to hear him speak. I never did, because the rally was cancelled. Just after we got word that he wasn't coming, someone shoved a piece of paper in my hand. It was full of shaming allegations about Dr. King. It was my first experience of what someone this past week dubbed "eliminationist" rhetoric. Is that what we should say about our enemies? "Eliminate them?"

Which brings us to last weekend's tragedy in Tucson. What was the cause of those killings? Who or what is really to blame? Was it political rhetoric, handgun availability, mental illness, religious discrimination, gender violence? Regardless of our opinion, that horrific act of domestic terrorism proves that those who feel like our enemies are not always foreigners or immigrants. Those who seek to do us harm are, more often than not, right here at home. What in the world might we do about that?

When Jesus taught his disciples to love their enemies, he knew they were trying to live by the ancient teaching of their faith, the Summary of the Law first laid down in the book of Deuteronomy (6:5): "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself" (both Luke 10:27 and Matthew 22:37). Love yourself, love your neighbor, love God. Simple as that.

Or maybe it's not that simple. Later in Luke, when a lawyer repeats this Summary of the Law to Jesus, he responds, "You have given the right answer" (10:28). But the lawyer makes the mistake of asking, "And who is my neighbor?" (10:29). He does not like what Jesus tells him: the story of the Good Samaritan. Samaritans, for that lawyer, a Jew, were not his neighbors. Samaritans and Jews were like enemies.

In sermon and in story, Jesus seems to be saying, You've learned to do the right thing – love yourself, your neighbor, your God. But now, I say to you, there's more to doing right. There's more to loving. Now, you need to go and try to love your enemies. Jesus seems to be saying, You need to practice loving yourselves, loving your neighbors and friends, and loving God, before you can even begin to love your enemies. But if we do not love God this morning (and that might just be true) . . . if we do not love our neighbors and friends this afternoon (again, that just might be true) . . . if we do not love ourselves, right here, right now . . . then, how on earth can we possibly do what Jesus wants us to do?

How easy is it to love God when your nine-year-old daughter is taken from you by a madman? How easy is it to love your neighbor or your friend when they constantly disagree with you or disappoint you or "diss" you? How easy is it to love yourself, when so many voices, over the years, have told you and me how impaired and imperfect and incomplete we are? Sometimes it's really hard to love ourselves, our neighbors, even our God. Why wouldn't it feel impossible to love our enemies?

"Love," Scott Peck wrote years ago in The Road Less Traveled, "is an act of will." In other words, I WILL love myself. I WILL love my friend. I WILL love God. But there's more to it than just our own willpower. There's the power of God. There's God's help. When we are able to love God, it is because of the "First Love" principle: "We love, because God first loved us" (I John 4:19). Dare we believe that? When we're ready, God stands ready, to help us learn how to love. In our service of Baptism, when it's time to renew our Baptismal Covenant, we say, "I WILL, with God's help." Which means – first, last and always – "I WILL LOVE, with God's help."

Jesus commanded his disciples, his friends, to love one another "as I have loved you" (John 13:34). But he also knew that his kind of love, Jesus-Love, begins with the love of God. God first poured love into our hearts at birth, and God is still pouring out that love, still showing us how to love, still helping us to love. Jesus-Love is the ultimate love, and we will spend our entire lives learning how to love as Jesus loved and loves – open-heartedly, non-violently, sacrificially, mercifully. We need to spend our whole lives learning how to love – ourselves, our neighbors, our God. Even our enemies. Especially our enemies.

Martin, our brother in Christ, learned a great deal, in the thirty-nine years he walked this earth, about how to love as Jesus loved, about how to love his enemies. While behind bars, he had plenty of uninterrupted time to write sermons. In one of those sermons, he said, "Love even for our enemies is the key to the solution of the problems of our world....Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power" (from the book, Strength to Love).

Dear friends in Christ, when we listen to and follow Jesus, there is no room in our Christianity for violence or vengeance. We must learn to love one another enough to confront any behaviors – in ourselves and in others – that seek to tear down or destroy. First and foremost, we must do this at home, at work, at school, at church. "Before you accuse me," the old blues song puts it, "take a look at yourself." Sisters and brothers, we must take a look at ourselves. We must learn to process our pain – our hurts, our disappointments, our sadness, our anger – and let it be transformed by God, or we will project it onto – or, God forbid, into – each other. We must go back to Sunday school, and we must learn how to love – Jesus-style, with God's help – week after week, day after day, for the rest of our lives. Let's do it together, with each other and with God, shall we?

Let us pray. God, help us to love. Help us to love ourselves, our families, friends and neighbors, and to love you, God. And help us, God, when we are ready, to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. In the witness of Martin and in the name of Jesus, I pray it.