"Love your enemies"

Sermon given by the Rev. Clare L. Hickman on February 19, 2017

Texts: Lev 19:1-2,9-18; “We have not come here to take prisoners”-Hafiz; Matthew 5:38-48

Clare L. Hickman

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale

February 19, 2017—Epiphany 7A

Lev 19:1-2,9-18; “We have not come here to take prisoners”-Hafiz; Matt 5:38-48


           “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor but hate your enemy.’” And we nod along with the crowd, kind of like we nod at the phrase “God helps those who help themselves.” Oh absolutely, Jesus, we’ve heard that lots of times. That might just be our favorite bible verse, to tell the truth!

          Except the bible doesn’t say either one of those things, right? If you look at Leviticus this morning, it says nothing about hating your enemies. It talks a lot about loving your neighbor; talks about not cheating, reviling, demeaning or stealing from other people; talks about the responsibility to share your wealth to prevent the poor from starving; talks about avoiding hatred, grudges and revenge. These things are all part of the holiness that the Book of Leviticus describes: how to live in such a way as to set oneself apart. The way that God’s people care for and act toward others should make them stand out!

          Jesus takes this, and adds an explicit command to love your enemies: yet one more intensification of the Law that Jesus throws us in the Sermon on the Mount, one more thing to make it clear that we’ll never get it perfect. But it’s one more thing to aim at anyway, because it turns out it’s the bullseye at the very heart of God: love everyone, even your enemies.

          I found the poet Hafiz a fitting companion this week, not just because he urges us to free ourselves into our full capacity for love, but because he is a Sufi. As such, in a week that brought devastating attacks on Sufi shrines throughout Pakistan, he can remind us how fraught the command to love our enemies really is. For, indeed, there are times when “enemy” is an extremely concrete and very dangerous category, and this cannot be blithely tossed aside.

          But ISIS itself isn’t the only enemy lurking in this story, even if they are the most explosive. Those of us who aren’t under physical attack might nonetheless find ourselves under attack by those disagree on the best way to make the world safe from such groups. In so many ways, our most obvious current enemies are the political opposites we face off against every day, and the rhetoric about their idiocy or evil just keeps getting more poisonous.

          The questions are serious. When it comes to ISIS: do we take swift and direct action to rid the world of this destructive force, or do we take the more indirect approach of strengthening the identity and economic structures of the moderate Muslim world? When it comes to caring for the poor: do we take direct action to provide food and other assistance to the unfortunate, or do we concentrate on the more indirect approach of strengthening the economy to provide greater prosperity and possibility for everyone? When it comes to caring for the alien and stranger in our midst: do we take in all those who are drawn here seeking our shelter, opportunity and freedom; or do we concentrate our efforts on a less over-whelming sized group who can truly flourish here?

          When it comes to this current issue, when it comes to that biblical command: there are often multiple approaches. And perhaps you’d disagree with the way I characterized some of those positions, because I worked hard to express them in their own terms, rather than as the opposition would express them. I highly recommend making this a regular practice. Not so that you change your position. Not even because it’s good debate practice to know your opposition’s argument as well as your own. But because it is, in our current climate, an excellent way to practice loving your enemy.

          Stop calling them names. I know it’s what we do now: throw around words like Lib-tard or Repugnican. It’s not okay. It’s not Christian. Seriously, the bible does not tell us to hate our enemies. Doesn’t tell us to presume the worst in their motives. Doesn’t tell us to ignore the possible shortcomings in our own ideas and behavior, but turn laser focus on those of our opponents. Doesn’t assure us that our way is the only way to do good in this world. It just tells us to do good. It tells us to extend love. And there might well be a variety of ways to follow this command.

          Consider, if you will, the fascinating case of two brothers, Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr. Faced with the horrors of World War II, the two theologians took very different positions on the ethics of violence and non-violence. Essentially, Reinhold argued that we must intervene, with violence if necessary, when there is evil in the world. On the other hand, Richard argued that the gospel calls us to shame evil with nonviolence; that violence is never the way to bring about peace.

          Each position has its strength. Each has a claim to moral standing and biblical warrant. The Niebuhrs remind us that things are often not so clear cut, right and wrong. They also provide a window into the fact that all approaches to the world’s problems have potential risks. As Charlie Baber puts it in a comic strip he titles Won’t You Be My Niebuhr, “Right now, many of us are Reinholds. We are devastated by all that’s wrong, and we’re not going to sit back and watch the bullies win. Reinholds need to take one step back and ask ourselves: will our use of force, will our verbal outrage, will that angry post help bring about the kingdom of God? Others are Richards, hoping that our acts of mercy will somehow make a difference and prove a better way. Richards need to take a step back and ask ourselves: is this enough? [Is it possible that we are] … doing this more to protect ourselves than out of a Christ-like concern for the defenseless?” (http://www.wesleybros.com/wesbros/wont-you-be-my-niebuhr/)

          We are all called to love our neighbors, to act fairly, and to care for the poor; we are called, in other words, to be holy (to stand out from the general mob of humanity in the way that we treat other people). Jesus adds to this that the work of love even extends to our enemies, which means that one of the ways we can love one another is to leave room for the possibility that we don’t have the monopoly on truth or goodness.

          Beyond that: it comes back to loving your neighbor. Don’t cheat them, lie to them, lie about them, revile them or make life more difficult for them. If they are in need, share some of your good fortune with them. And, Jesus adds (because he knows how we think!): this holds true even if you don’t like them. Even if they don’t like you. Figure out how to love them anyway, serve them anyway. Your way of doing that might be different from the person next to you, and that’s okay. Fortunately, you don’t actually have to answer to them.

          It’s just Jesus, looking you in the eye and telling you: Let your love be complete. Love your neighbor … figure out some way in which you can love your enemies … and in those acts of love, I will be with you. I will be in you. And that will make your love perfect. May it be so. Amen.    

Clare Hickman