Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 23, 2014

2014.02.23 “Rules for Relationships, Part 2: Love Your Enemies” – Matthew 5: 38 – 48

Central United Methodist Church
Rules for Relationships, Part 2: Love Your Enemies
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 5: 38 – 48
February 23, 2014

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“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
– Matthew 5: 33 – 48, The New Revised Standard Version

On Monday, January 20rth, just over a month ago, on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, it was sunny and fifty degrees in Washington, D. C. My family and I walked the length of the National Mall, past the Smithsonian, past the Washington Monument, past the World War II memorial, over to the King Memorial, which looks across the tidal basin to the Jefferson Memorial.

Because it was the King holiday, a joyful and grateful crowd was gathered there. A group of alumni and students from Morehouse College in Atlanta – where King graduated from – joined in a circle and sang.

As I walked around the Memorial and read the quotations from Dr. King, they brought tears to my eyes. There is no one in America today – certainly no preacher – who has the moral stature of King, the depth and universalism of his thought and work. As we left, I told my son Chris that my respect for what Dr. King accomplished in his short life has grown through the years. As the King Memorial portrays in word and in stone, “He carved a stone of hope out of a mountain of despair.”

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There were two absolutes to Martin Luther King’s work. First, he believed the time had come to end the subjugation of the black race in America, in the Jim Crow laws and in segregation. It was not a work that he – as a black Baptist preacher chose – but a work that chose him. His second absolute was that though change must come, it must be accomplished non-violently. King insisted it would not do to stoop to the level of the perpetrators hatred and violence. As he said in one of his most famous quotes: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

 KingQuotation

There were several sources where King learned his philosophy of non-violence. He learned some from Henry David Thoreau; he learned a lot more from Mohandas Gandhi in India, who used non-violence to throw off British colonialism. But as one King scholar said, the most important philosophers to influence Dr. King were Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Especially Matthew, who gives us Jesus’ famous words in his Sermon on the Mount, the words we heard today, about turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, loving even our enemies, and praying for those who persecute us.

Let-no-man-pull-you-so-low

If this sounds radical, we have learned in recent weeks that most of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is radical. For it reflects not the values of the world, but the values of the Kingdom of God. In those verses we all the Beatitudes, we heard about the people God blesses: the poor, the meek, the humble, those who mourn and who seek God. We heard the function God’s people are to serve in the world, as salt and light.

Last week we heard the new standards of righteousness, which were to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, some of the most righteous people who ever lived. “You have heard it said,” says Jesus repeatedly, “but I say to you . . .” We learned that it is not enough simply to fulfill the minimal standards of goodness, as in “Do not murder;” the values of the kingdom go deeper, into heart and mind, as when we are angry and speak evil of a brother or sister.

This week Jesus continues saying “You have heard it said, but I say to you,” and now comes the really hard part: not only do the new standards of the Kingdom apply to what we have done, they also apply to what we are not to do: respond in kind, even to those who hurt and oppress us.

Did you, like me, as a child, struggle with these words of Jesus when you first heard them, thinking, “How could I ever do that?” Do you, like me, as an adult, still struggle with them? How could I do that?

At least today as we read these words of Jesus, thanks to Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement and the Freedom Riders, we have before us a powerful historical example, right here in our own country, in our lifetime, of how powerful nonviolence can be in affecting social change. The images of those who marched in Birmingham and Montgomery, who faced snarling dogs and fire hoses, who rode buses through the south, who integrated segregated lunch counters, even as they were physically and verbally abused – without responding in kind – are profiles in courage as sure as any soldier who ever served in combat. I think it was Ralph Abernathy who once said that one of the things he had to learn early on, “was how to pray with his eyes open.”

Rare though it is, non-retaliation and non-violence as a method of social change, we understand. Non-retaliation and non-violence as the idealistic philosophy of a young preacher named Jesus, so long ago, we understand. But what about as a religious and practical attitude and ethical policy for our lives: is it feasible? Can we practice it? Not just with those we consider our enemies, but those with whom we have a hard time getting along? Including, sometimes, the members of our own families?

And so it has been through the centuries, that preachers and teachers have reassured Christians, “Don’t worry, these phrases are figures of speech,” they are “ideal rules of the kingdom not practical in the real world, they are an ethic for somebody other than us. And congregations have collectively sighed, “Thank God; I was afraid Jesus really meant for us to practice them. I’m afraid I’ve got bad news for you today; I think Jesus really did mean for us to practice them. I mean, look at how he lived and died; does that sound to you like a man who was only pretending?

To be sure, they are not blanket absolutes, to be applied in every situation. In the face of dictators, and terrorists, and bullies, especially when the lives of the innocent – or our family – are at risk, non-violence may not always the best course of action. Though Christians respectfully disagree, this is why I have never been able to be a complete pacifist.

But it is equally true that there are also other times when the usual way, the old way, only leads to continued cycles of hatred, violence, and suffering. The question then becomes, who will have the moral fortitude and courage to finally stand up and break the cycle? Whether it is Christians and Muslims, or Jews and Palestinians, Irish Catholics and Protestants, or feuding families, who will take the first courageous steps of peace to end the cycle of violence? Because, as Gandhi said, “If we practice an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, soon the whole world will be blind and toothless”.
In addition to ending longstanding cycles of hatred and violence, here’s two additional reasons why I think Jesus really meant it: The first is, the affect that hatred has on us. Listen to Dr. King:
“We usually think of what hate does for the individual hated or the individuals hated or the groups hated. But it is even more tragic, it is even more ruinous and injurious to the individual who hates. You just begin hating somebody, and you will begin to do irrational things. You can’t see straight when you hate. You can’t walk straight when you hate. You can’t stand upright. Your vision is distorted. There is nothing more tragic than to see an individual whose heart is filled with hate . . . For the person who hates, you can stand up and see a person and that person can be beautiful, and you will call them ugly. For the person who hates, the beautiful becomes ugly and the ugly becomes beautiful. For the person who hates, the good becomes bad and the bad becomes good. For the person who hates, the true becomes false and the false becomes true. That’s what hate does. You can’t see right. . . . Hate at any point is a cancer that gnaws away at the very vital center of your life and your existence. It is like eroding acid that eats away the best and the objective center of your life. So Jesus says love, because hate destroys the hater as well as the hated.” (Loving Your Enemies, November 17, 1957)
But the second reason I believe Jesus meant for us to love our enemies, is because of the transforming power love can have on them. As Dr. King once said, “Love is the only thing that can turn an enemy into a friend.” One of Dr. King’s favorite stories in this regard was about Abraham Lincoln.
When Abraham Lincoln was running for president, there was a man named Edwin Stanton, who went around the country talking about Lincoln. He said a lot of bad things about Lincoln, a lot of unkind things. Sometimes he would even talk about Lincoln’s looks, saying, “You don’t want a tall, lanky, ignorant man like this as the president of the United States.” Finally, Abraham Lincoln was elected president. He had to choose a Cabinet, and among them, a Secretary of War. He looked across the nation, and decided to choose a man Mr. Stanton. When Lincoln mentioned this fact to his advisors, they said to him: “Mr. Lincoln, are you a fool? Do you know what Mr. Stanton has been saying about you? Do you know what he has done, tried to do to you? Do you know that he has tried to defeat you on every hand? Do you know that, Mr. Lincoln? Did you read all of those derogatory statements that he made about you?” Abraham Lincoln stood before the advisors around him and said: “Oh yes, I know about it; I read about it; I’ve heard him myself. But after looking over the country, I find that he is the best man for the job.”
Mr. Stanton did become Secretary of War, and a few months later, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. As Abraham Lincoln died, Stanton was the one who said: “Now he belongs to the ages,” a beautiful statement concerning the character and the stature of the man. If Abraham Lincoln had hated Stanton, if Abraham Lincoln had answered everything Stanton said, Abraham Lincoln would have not transformed and redeemed Stanton. Stanton would have gone to his grave hating Lincoln, and Lincoln would have gone to his grave hating Stanton. But through the power of love, Abraham Lincoln was able to redeem Stanton.
As indeed, King would eventually redeem our nation, by the power of non-violent love. As he said in a powerful sermon on this text as far back as November 17, 1957 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, entitled “Loving Your Enemies:”
“So this morning, as I look into your eyes, and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you, “I love you. I would rather die than hate you.” And I’m foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed. And then we will be in God’s kingdom. We will be able to matriculate into the university of eternal life because we had the power to love our enemies, to bless those persons that cursed us, to even decide to be good to those persons who hated us, and we even prayed for those persons who despitefully used us.”

Ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, let us not fool ourselves, there is still a lot of hate and violence out there in the world. Can we do it? Can we dig down deep, summon the better angels of our souls, passively practice non-violence, and actively respond with love? With God’s help – and only with God’s help – I believe we can. Amen.

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