19 February 2017

Loving the Enemy

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

It’s been said that, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”   That’s how G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) put it in his essay “What’s Wrong With the World.” Chesterton was an English poet, philosopher, and dramatist, Roman Catholic lay theologian, literary and art critic, best known for his Father Brown murder mysteries.  “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting.  It has been found difficult and left untried.”

Chesterton could easily have been talking about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-8), perhaps 5:38-48, in particular.  These words are at the heart of Jesus’ preaching and ministry.  They are classic Jesus.  We could say these verses sound, so,…well…Christian.  We all know Jesus said them; they are associated with his followers.  Christians and non-Christians, alike, know what Jesus said about “turning the other cheek,” or “going the next mile.”  You don’t have to be a Christian to know that Jesus said to his followers, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you….” (Mt 5:43).  Yes, we know what Jesus said. And we also know just how blasted difficult it is to follow him.  The Christian life is difficult and, maybe, that’s why it has been left untried.  Christian ideas and practices have been on the scene for more than 2,000 years and the Church has yet to really practice what we preach. 

All of the teachings in this section of the sermon are challenging.  Perhaps the most demanding, revolutionary, and radical teaching is what Jesus had to say about loving the enemy.  Friends—this is unbelievably difficult to put into practice, human nature being what it is.  It’s important for me to go slowly here, because I don’t want you to get the impression that I’ve “mastered” this teaching, because I haven’t. 

So, what does Jesus say?  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’” (Mt 5:43).  This teaching, like many others in the sermon, is designed to get us to think about God in a different way and, therefore, live in a new way.  Some of these sayings are known as the Great Antitheses.  For example, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’”  You have heard that it was said…where?  This saying is found in Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (c. 1754 BCE), the lex talionis, the “law of retaliation,” which established justice as quid pro quo.  It’s also found in Exodus 21:23-25 and Leviticus 24:19-20, although here an “eye for an eye” meant “only an eye.”  In other words if you take out my eye, I can’t take from you two eyes and two arms.  The law was means to restrict compensation.  If you hurt me, I get to hurt you equally hard.  That’s fair play.  This is how most people understand justice, both in the Church and outside it—but, it’s, actually, theologically, biblically wrong to think of justice this way.  “But I say to you, ‘Do not resist the evildoer…’” (Mt. 5:38-39).  Jesus tells us that his followers have to move past the endless, vicious cycle of “getting even.”  Gandhi (1869-1948) understood this.  He said, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”  Perhaps that’s why Gandhi admired Christ so much.  As for Christians, well, …not so much.

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”  We need to stop here.  Yes, Leviticus 19:18, part of the Jewish Law (Torah) reads, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  But the Hebrew scriptures say nothing about hating one’s enemies.  So, is Jesus misquoting scripture?  No.  Religious pious types often tried to figure out the minimum requirements of the faith.  These religious literalists claimed that scripture said we are to love our neighbor.  Since scripture was silent about loving one’s enemy, which meant it was okay to hate one’s enemy.  I’m free to do whatever I want to a non-neighbor.  The scripture doesn’t say that I can’t hate my enemy.  I’m obliged to love the person next door, but I don’t have to love someone in another town or country, or of a different ethnicity, race, or religion.

Then Jesus says, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you….” In other words, Jesus increases the demands of God’s Law!  Jesus has higher expectations for his people. You can’t get out of loving only your neighbor.  If you’re going to be my follower, Jesus says, then you are called to love your non-neighbor and you’re expected to love even your enemy. Jesus increases the weight of responsibility upon us; he doesn’t lessen it.

You’re probably asking, “Okay, how do I do this? How do I love my enemies?”  Maybe you don’t have enemies.  Maybe you do.  Maybe there’s someone you utterly hate and despise, someone you can’t stand to be around, someone you hate so much because of their hate toward you, because of what they did to you or continue to do to you.  Are you being persecuted?  Perhaps you don’t have people like that in your life.  Then, what about people who make you uncomfortable, who frustrate you, who disgust you, who make you anxious? What about them?  What is your responsibility, as a Christian, toward them?

Jesus says, “You shall love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  Love, Jesus says.  This is the first time the word “love” is found in Matthew’s gospel.   Love.  Really, Jesus?   Love?  It can’t be that simple.  Perhaps I can love my neighbor—although, sometimes even my neighbors are tough to love, but I try—but my enemies?  That’s asking too much.  That’s unrealistic, Jesus.  Maybe for some.  Maybe for your saints.  Not for me.

It was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) who said, “Love is the only force that can transform an enemy into a friend.” King had lots of enemies.  He had good reasons to hate. Yet, as a servant of Christ, his only response was love. “Love your enemies,” Jesus said, “and pray for those who persecute you.” These are difficult words.  Dr. King preached many-a-sermon on this text.  As he knew, embodying the text is entirely something else.  He never gave up his vision of Christian non-violence, active resistance.

~  ~  ~  ~

We’ve been reflecting upon interpersonal relationships—which are tough enough.  But, does Jesus’ teaching apply to geo-political affairs?  Aside from the question of whether it is appropriate for a Christian to engage in acts of war, at a minimum, we can still pray for our enemy.  But even that, for some, is asking too much.  So, then, what does that say about one’s commitment to Jesus and his teachings and the responsibility of the Church?  When I first arrived at Catonsville Presbyterian Church in 1999, I heard the story of the time, during the first Gulf War in 1991, when Lorne Bostwick, the associate pastor here, prayed for Saddam Hussein in worship during the Prayers of the People.  Some stormed out, furious.  Some ripped up their offering checks and threw them in the offering plate.  The story surfaced again here, in 2002, as the United States invaded Iraq.  Praying for Hussein was too much for some.  Are there limits to all of this Jesus stuff?

 ~  ~  ~  ~

If it’s too demanding to love our neighbors and enemies “out there,” wherever “there” might be, what if we turned inward?  Not in a selfish or self-serving way.  Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931), the Lebanese-American poet, once wrote, “And God said “Love Your Enemy,” and I obeyed him and loved myself.”  What if the “enemy” that needs to be loved is one’s self?  What if the “enemy” is within, a part of ourselves, the part we have difficulty loving and accepting?  What if we loved the part of us that seems to persecute and judge us?  You know those voices, the voices that say you’re not good enough, not bright enough, not kind enough, not loving enough, not enough of whatever, just never enough.  Personally, I think, much of what we project out upon the world, how we treat our neighbor and enemies—whether it’s with love or condemnation, judging or loathing—originates within us, within the human heart.  How can a Christian begin to love neighbor, as well as enemy, if we are at odds with ourselves, if we can’t even love ourselves, if we hate ourselves, or believe that God hates us?  Didn’t Jesus call us to love our neighbor—and how does the rest of it go?  “As you love yourself” (Mt. 22:39)?

On the morning I finally arrived in Santiago de Compostela, after trekking 500 miles across Spain, I walked the last ten miles in conversation with my friend, Oswald.  We had walked many miles together and shared hours of deep conversation.  He was raised in the church, in Holland.  Today, he is more of a Buddhist, he’s a world-class photographer, and teaches Kundalini yoga in his studio in Barcelona.  It was Sunday morning. We were hoping to arrive in time to go to Mass.  We reflected on what it means, these days, to say that one is Christian.  Oswald said all he heard about growing up was the need to love his neighbor.  He said, “In my church I never heard about the rest of the verse, ‘as you love yourself.’”

 ~  ~  ~  ~

So how can we love our neighbor and our enemy?  How do we have the maturity and courage to pray for those who persecute us?  How do we love the enemy within?  I began the sermon by quoting Chesterton, about the difficulty of the Christian ideal.  It is difficult, that’s true.  But Chesterton gets something wrong.  Jesus is not talking about an ideal.  I can’t image that Jesus was setting up an impossible to reach standard of behavior, only to judge us for not reaching it.  That would be cruel.

What is often missed in this text—and it’s easy to do when we turn Jesus’ teaching into an ideal, think of it only in terms of behavior or ethics, something that I or we have to do—is the second half of the verse.  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”—why?—“so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:44-45).  And what does God do, according to Jesus?  “God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends his rain on the righteous and unrighteous” (Mt. 5:45).  God’s children reflect the Holy Parent.  God does not hate the enemy.  God cannot hate, cannot hate God’s enemies—which, includes all of us, especially when we are God’s “enemies” or at odds with God’s will for our lives and the world.  God’s grace falls upon all of us, because that’s whom God is and that’s what God does.  And it’s in this sense that God is perfect and calls us to be perfect—perfect, not in an ethical sense, never ever making a mistake, never failing, getting an A+ on every moral test.  A better translation for the Greek here is wholeness or love or holiness, not “perfect”—that’s such a loaded word.  In other words, just as God lives out God’s purpose by being loving, so, too, when we know we are rooted and grounded in God’s love for us, as God’s children, then we are free to live out our purpose, which is to reflect and embody God’s love and wholeness and holiness!  “We respond to other people—even our enemies—with the kind of compassion and desire for the good that expresses the way God responds to the world.”[1]

In the end, it comes down to love.  How do we begin to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us?  We start with God, we start with God’s love toward us, and we stay there and sit with this love until we see and feel and know ourselves as the object, the recipient of God’s radical grace, God’s compassion, and God’s mercy.  The more we know what God’s love feels like, the more we experience it, the more we dwell and abide and rest in God’s love, this One who loves us through and through, the more we discover, gradually over time, what is the loving, compassionate, merciful, even difficult thing we must do, because we are God’s children.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), the brilliant German theologian, pastor, martyr, wrote a book on the meaning of discipleship, based on the Sermon on the Mount.  We know it in English as The Cost of Discipleship; in German, the title is simply one word Nachfolge, meaning, Follow.  Published in 1937, the book was written (illegally) for seminarians studying at his secret seminary, Finkenwalde, which was eventually shut down by the Gestapo.  Reflecting on Matthew 5:43, Bonhoeffer wrote, “Love asks nothing in return, but seeks those who need it.  And who needs our love more than those who are consumed with hatred and are utterly devoid of love?  Who in other words deserves our love more than our enemy?  Where is love more glorified than where she dwells in the midst of her enemies?”[2]  

Where, indeed. 

Love simply seeks those who need it most. 

Isn’t that the way God loves us?

Then, that’s the way we can love.

[1] Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 64.
[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Macmillan, 1963), 164.

05 February 2017

Calling Out False Religion

Isaiah 58

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sacrament of the Lord's Supper

The Revised Common Lectionary for this Sunday suggests that we read Isaiah 58:1-9a, possibly through verse 12, but leave off the last two verses.   It’s a long chapter, for sure. But I propose that we read the entire chapter.  In order to help us be attentive to the words of the prophet, I’m going to stay very close to the text. So keep your Bible close at hand.

First, there are several things you need to know about this text.  Chapters 40 through 66 are often known as Second Isaiah.   They were not written by the prophet Isaiah, who lived in the eighth century BCE, but by a community of prophets bearing his name, written in the sixth century, written to God’s people during their time in captivity in Babylon.  These words were written by and for a community in exile, far from home.  The community is anticipating a return, once the Babylonian Empire finally falls (which it did in 536 BCE).  Before they return home, however, they need to be clear about who they are as God’s people.  Second Isaiah calls the people to change, to confess their sins, to prepare their hearts for liberation.  And at the heart of Israel’s experience with God was something that was always true, straight from the beginning: the connection between worship and justice, the connection between worship and service, the connection between worship and action.  Israel has forgotten this, but the need to remember.

In chapter 58, God confronts Israel—and through Israel confronts the ChurchGod said to Isaiah, “Shout out. Do not hold back!”(Is. 58:1). What follows is a searing condemnation of false worship, false religion. Isaiah tells the people what Yahweh requires. This is an extremely provocative text.  No one comes out unscathed.  It's a profound statement on the nature and purpose of worship, on the imperative to connect what happens in the sanctuary with how we live in society. Here we learn the kind of worship God expects from us. And we discover what faith enacted in society is supposed to look like. 

True worship can’t be self-serving.  We don’t worship God for what we get out of it. We don’t worship in order for God to do things for us.  We don’t show up for worship each week to curry God’s favor to help us when we need or want something.  The worship of God is always an end in itself, which then shapes how we live in the world.  In other words, we cannot sever what goes on in the sanctuary from the way we live outside the sanctuary.  If your worship isn’t deepening your commitment to care for the needs of your neighbors, the needs of strangers, anyone in need, if your worship doesn’t lead to a more generous heart, a more expansive life, then something is seriously wrong with you’re worship life.

Yes, it’s tough to preach on a text such as this because it says all that needs to be said.  So, let’s follow the flow of the text.
God commands Isaiah to, “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God” (58:1-2).  Here, God’s people say that they want to know and serve God, but they reject God’s will.  They think their nation is righteous, they think that their nation is doing God’s will, but it is far away, indeed, from God’s will.

Next, God (through Isaiah) echoes back the people’s complaint in verse 3.  (Note the quotations in the text.) “Why do we fast, but you do not see?”  In other words, they ask, “Why do we bother with worship, God, if you don’t pay attention to us?  Why do we practice our piety if you’re not going to listen to us?”  “Why [should we] humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

Then God replies, through Isaiah, in verse 3b, and blasts them: “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself?”  All you do, God says, is boast about yourselves.  God asks, “Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?” In other words, God says, Why do you go about being so mournful and joyful and preoccupied with yourselves?  God asks, “Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

Instead, God says in verse 6, “Is not this the fast that I choose”—here it comes, these sweet words of life, the way of true religion.  “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”  Every yoke!  Break every yoke!  It is not enough to simply remove the yoke of oppression.  You must shatter it!  God asks, “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Is. 58:6-7).
You see, this is the kind of worship or religious expression that God desires of us.  This is what worship is for—worship enables us to be advocates for the oppressed, the broken and bound, the hungry and homeless, to open our hearts.  We Christians should be breaking the yoke of oppression, not becoming a yoke of oppression ourselves!  If after worship our hearts are still closed, are still cold, are still turned inward, are still selfish, then something is seriously wrong.

So, what will happen when God’s people really practice true worship, true religion?  Isaiah says, in verses 8 and 9, “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”  Then you will have God’s attention because God will know your heart is in the right place.  Then God will show up! 
For this—this is what Yahweh asks of us!  There’s absolutely no room for debate or argument on this matter.  This is what Yahweh asks of us, verse 9b, “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.  Then. 
Isaiah tells us how the world will be transformed.  Verses 11 and 12: “The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” 
Healing.  Watered gardens.  People fed and cared for.  Streets—the public square—restored so that people can live there, safely and securely.  That’s what God expects of us.  This is what God expects from the church.  And this is what God expects from governments, from those in power, who have been given the responsibility to care for all of God’s children.[1]

Then Isaiah goes on to say in verse 13, “If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isaiah 58:13-14).

If we trample the sabbath, if we neglect true worship, if we selfishly insist on our own way and ignore the heart of God, then don’t be surprised if society unravels all around us.  If religion isn’t feeding the needs of God’s people, if it isn’t calling us to life, if it isn’t breaking yokes of oppression, then our worship is false.  If we’re not allowing people to blossom and flourish, to really live—and not only Christians and Jews, but Christians and Jews and Muslims, people of every religion and none—then our religion is false.  As our sixteenth century forebear, the reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) knew, one of the tests of a good society is whether and how it take care of its poor.  Calvin was adamant about this in his ministry in Geneva.  One of the tests of a good society is whether and how it takes care of its poor.[2]  We are called to form and reform social structures so that the structures of society allow people to thrive.

True worship leads to service, to justice, to acts of love and mercy and peace.  Service and justice and acts of love and mercy and peace lead us back into the sanctuary to offer praise and gratitude to God.  Back and forth.  Worship calls forth service, which leads us back to worship.  Worship calls for justice, which leads us back to worship.  Back and forth—all to the glory of God!  Unless our worship leads us toward greater acts of mercy and enables human flourishing then it’s not of God—it might even be demonic.  And without an understanding of the connection between worship and justice, our worship will not be able to block the way of the demonic.

Back in 2004, the General Council of the World Communion of Reformed Churches met in Accra, Ghana.  The Communion is made up of denominations from around the world within the Reformed theological tradition, such as the Presbyterian Church (USA).  It meets every couple of years in different cities.[3]  As part of their meeting, the delegates from around the world visited Elmina and Cape Coast castles situated along the West African coast.  Beginning in the seventeenth century, these castles were places where captured Africans were kept shackled before being shipped away and sold into slavery.  When the council delegates climbed up the steps of Elmina’s women’s dungeon, they emerged to discover a Reformed (Calvinist or Presbyterian) chapel, over whose entrance were inscribed these words: “The Lord has chosen Zion” (Psalm 132:13). The delegates were shocked, horrified, aghast.  “For two centuries, people who considered themselves among the Lord’s ‘chosen’ had worshiped and prayed in this place while directly beneath them human beings were chained in misery.”  How could they have been so morally and spiritually blind?  “On this trade in humans as commodities, the wealth in Europe was built.  Through their labor, sweat, suffering, intelligence, and creativity, the wealth of the Americas was developed.”[4] 

How could they be so morally and spiritually blind?  We have to be careful here.  As Calvin knew, it’s easy for us to become very blind.  We have to be careful not to judge them too quickly.  Where are we similarly blind today?  We can pay lip service to the importance of worship or bemoan the fact that more Americans are not in worship on Sundays or we might look out with envy to megachurches packing crowds into their sanctuaries, however, worship attendance is no guarantee that the gospel is being preached and lived out in the world.  Many white Christians in both the South and the North filled their sanctuaries to capacity in the 1950s and 1960s, yet never offered a word of encouragement to black Christians struggling for their rights as American citizens, fighting to be treated with decency and dignity.  Many white churches never advocated on behalf of their black sisters and brothers, never risked anything for them, never put their bodies on the line for the sake of the health of the body of Christ.[5]  The Church at that time, desiring to avoid conflict—as if conflict avoidance and playing “nice” are synonymous with faithful discipleship—failed to make the connection between worship and justice, between worship and action, between worship and love embodied in society.  Some churches did make the connection, but not all—certainly not enough.  The Church is always tempted to do the same—we love to play it safe, avoid anything controversial. 

Where is the Church silent today?  Where are those places where worship is severed from service in society?  What about Catonsville Presbyterian Church?

Where are those dark places in our communities that wait for the dawning of the light?  Where are the wounds that need healing? Where are you going to bring light?  How are you going to be an agent of God’s healing?  How is your worship, the singing of beloved hymns, the saying of prayers, the hearing of this Word, how is your baptism shaping your service?  How will your time at the Lord’s Table this morning, how will broken bread and a cup of suffering change the way you live?  How will this meal inspire you to take up a cross and follow on behalf of your Lord?  How will this meal lead you into broken places, to places of suffering?  How will you embody the mercy and love and light of God?

[1] See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), especially Book IV, chapter XX: On the Church and State; Spiritual and Civil government; The function and Authority of Civil Rulers; The Nature of Civil Laws; and The Christian Attitude Toward the State.
[2] William Stacy Johnson in John Calvin: Reformer for the Twenty-First Century (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 117.
[3] For more information about the World Communion of Reformed Churches.
[4] Story told by Johnson, 125.
[5] See Robert P. Jones, The End of White Christian America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016).