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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Giving Up Enemies - 03/09/2016

Our theme this week is giving up enemies.

That's a big one – harder for many of us, I would guess, than giving up chocolate or negative thinking during Lent. Particularly hard, I think, this year, situated as we are in the midst of a presidential election season, where more people than usual are trying to tap into our fears and misgivings about those we might think of as our enemies. There are a lot of votes to be won and fear mongering is perhaps one of the more cost effective way to getting them. It's a lot easier and less time consuming to continue dividing the voters you are courting, rather than to build bridges, nurture conversation and promote empathy and compassion among them.

But giving up our enemies is precisely what Jesus asks us to do in our reading from Matthew today. Even in a year that is not heavy on politics and mud slinging, this seems like an idealistic suggestion from Jesus. It's easy for him to say – being the son of God and all.

It is idealistic. It comes from a larger section of Matthew's gospel that begins with Jesus saying “Do not think that I have come to abolish the laws or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” He goes on to explain and he takes these well known laws to a new level by setting unbelievably high bars for what it means to comply with these laws. Not only shall you not murder, but you will be held accountable for letting anger seethe in your belly. Do not commit adultery, but know that even feeling an attraction to someone besides your spouse is sinful. When you divorce, not only are you required to give your spouse a certificate of divorce, but you should know that you commit adultery or cause someone else to commit adultery by marrying again. You know that you should not swear an oath falsely, but even more so “do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by earth, for it is God's footstool.” (v 34-35)

And then we get to the way Jesus lays out the law in our reading today. Do not retaliate if someone strikes you, in fact, turn the other cheek. If someone asks something of you, give then what they ask for and more. And regarding your enemies: you must learn to love them and pray for them. You must see them as God sees them … as part of God's good creation, just as you are.

These are not easy standards to live up to without fail – they do not match up with the reality of our world.

But the letter of the law is not Jesus' primary concern here – rather he is addressing the spirit of the law. God knows we are not able to meet these standards with perfection and so God has graciously addressed that shortfall in us – it is addressed in the redemption we have already won on that game-changing, creation-loving cross we are all walking toward in this Lenten season.

When we let go of the concrete facts of how perfectly we are or are not obeying God's laws, and concentrate instead on how we can continually expand and create this expression of love in this world – we find that God is transforming the world through us.

When Jesus asks us to love and pray for our enemy, he is asking us to join him in turning the world upside down with love so that we become vessels for God's divine work in this world to connect people rather than divide them.

We can see the evidence of this transformative activity of God in our world. We might think of a time when we ourselves joined forces for a common cause with someone who held political, social or religious viewpoints that were very different from our own. We hear it in the moving stories of families who are able to forgive someone who has hurt of even killed a loved one.

I think of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission held in South Africa after the abolition of apartheid. Victims of human rights violations had the chance to make statements about what happened to them and perpetrators of these atrocities could also give testimony and request amnesty. The commission was an essential part of making it possible for the people of South Africa to put hatred of enemy behind them and live and breathe into the transformation God was working through them in their post-apartheid reality.

I think of a personal experience in which I saw with my own eyes what can happen when this transformative power of God is unleashed in this world.

When I was in seminary, I used to joke about how much theology work I did while using the Chicago Transportation Authority.

I'd joke about it, but truly, those trains and buses were a rich study site for me. The seminary was on the south side of Chicago. One of my field education sites was on the north side, along with some family and friends. So, particularly during my second year at school, I was on the bus and train a lot – four or more hours each week, so it just made sense to use it for study time. But it wasn't just the books that instructed me – that opened up God's word to me – as I made my way from one side of the city to the other. It was the people I encountered along the way.

One day I was on the train reading and I was sitting next to this young guy who was pretty decked out in expensive looking jeans and shoes and a sporty jacket of some kind. He was an animated guy and he kept making random comments about stuff to another young man sitting across from him who was also reading a book and seemed like he was working hard to be patient with his friend who kept interrupting his reading.

And then this other man got on the train. He was clearly not in control of himself physically. I thought he was going to fall on top of somebody. He was stumbling and mumbling and trying to hold his pants up, which were far too big for his emaciated frame. He appeared to be a very sick man, probably suffering from a mental illness. He asked me for money but I didn't have anything to give him. I told him I was sorry and he started laughing at me really loudly and unnaturally. It was alarming and frightening. I didn't know what he was going to do next. So I just prayed that God would protect me and everybody else on that train, including this man who was laughing and drooling and falling all over the place. As I looked down, I noticed the guy next to me was taking a box cutter out of the pocket of his fancy jeans.

I didn't have enough time to react fully to the fact that I was the one thing between the sick man and the box cutter before he moved away from us a little and asked someone else for money. The guy with the box cutter and the fancy jeans leaned across the train toward his friend and said something about cutting the guy … it was a little more flowery than that. And his friend calmly looked at him and said, “And what if he's Jesus Christ?”

Whoa. I was not expecting that.

Apparently the guy next to me as just as caught off guard by this question as I was. He slipped the box cutter back in his pocket and sat back in his seat. But in the meantime, the sick man made his way back to us. He was still acting unpredictably. I saw my neighbor reach back into his pocket, but this time he pulled out a couple of dollars and he gave them to the sick man. Immediately the situation was diffused. We pulled into the next stop and the sick man got off the train. At the next stop the two young men got up to leave. I caught eyes with the man with the fancy jeans and box cutter and said “thank you.” He nodded at me and left.

In the eye-for-an-eye way of navigating this world, that scenario could have played out in a much more frightening and dangerous way.

I left theology class on the train that day with a vision of the world Jesus was pointing to when he urged us to love and pray for our enemies. It's not an easy way. But it is is our way as followers of Jesus. It is the way of the cross – that place where the letter of the law has been fulfilled. That place where we are now freed to pursue the spirit of the law, to love God and neighbor in the spirit of how Jesus models this for us – extravagantly, lavishly, profusely, perfectly, unexpectedly.

Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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