CMC Worship in Place | October 11 | Cultivating Beloved Community

Sermon Manuscript

Love you enemy as yourself? 

Scripture | Isaiah 25:6-10, Matthew 5:43-48

Speaker: Joel Miller


Toward the beginning of seminary Abbie and I were asked to lead a congregational retreat for a church near where I grew up.  One of the exercises we had people do was to rewrite the words of Psalm 23 with a different image besides shepherd.  The Lord is my ____, and then go from there, re-writing the Psalm to fit the new image.  That’s the Psalm that goes on to say, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”  We went around the room and shared what we had written.  The Lord is friend, the Lord is my mother, the Lord is my computer.  I don’t remember any of the following lines of anyone’s Psalms except from a quiet dear elderly woman.  Her Psalm included these words: “You prepare a table before me.  I have no enemies.”

Fast forward to just a few weeks ago.  I’m meeting with the Wednesday small group that discusses the Daily Meditation emails from Richard Rohr.  As we’re getting underway, discussing the blatant racism and political polarization around us, one of the participants says “You know, for the first time in my life I feel like I actually have some real enemies.

Of all the things Jesus said, passed down through the gospel writers, “love your enemies” has to be one of the most confounding.  It’s hard enough to love your neighbor as yourself.  I mean, it’s hard enough to love yourself. 

Is it even commendable to seek to love someone who has directly caused you harm, even trauma, who is still out there getting away with it?  What about people who willingly play a part in systems that oppress?  Nice people who perpetuate terrible things just by doing their job.  And then there are the white supremacists, the misogynists, the gay bashers, the companies that dump poisons in the water and air, pay their workers less than a living wage and use the profits to jack up their own stock price thus creating more wealth which keeps trickling up and up to the select few masters of commerce who get tax breaks and excellent health care meanwhile lobbying against oversight and environmental protections and the social safety net that is stretched thin to breaking.  

In the Beloved Community, what are we to do about enemies? 

I have no reason to doubt the peaceful woman who pondered the course of her life and declared that she had no enemies.  If you would have been there and heard her speak her Psalm, you would have believed her too.  I don’t know what it took for her to arrive at that place, but I imagine she had taken Jesus’ teachings rather seriously and done some praying for people she didn’t particularly care for.  When you love your enemies, they’re no longer your enemies, and so you and Jesus get to define the nature of the relationship even if they continue in their enemy-like behavior. 

But the command to love our enemies assumes that we do indeed have enemies.  Prematurely convincing ourselves that we have loved them out of existence doesn’t do us or them any good.  Naming our enemies is a spiritual and serious exercise.  It’s only in proclaiming who and what our actual real enemies are that we can begin the confounding and difficult work of loving them. 

It’s a big responsibility, having enemies.     

These words of Jesus appear in the larger teaching block we call The Sermon on the Mount – something of a manifesto of the Beloved Community.  It’s the sixth of six consecutive themes Jesus introduces by saying “You have heard that it was said….but I say to you…” 

Christians have sometimes thought of these as freeing us Gentiles from the demands of the Jewish legal code.  This would have come as a surprise to Jesus the Jew who repeatedly names those demands – and then makes them even more demanding.  You have heard it was said – do not murder – but I say to you don’t even harbor anger.  You have heard it was said – an eye for an eye – but I say to you don’t resist evil in kind. 

You have heard that it was said You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.  But I say to you love your enemies.

“Love your neighbor” is a quote from Leviticus which says “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The phrase “Hate your enemy” doesn’t appear in the Bible but is common enough a sentiment.  In other words, there’s a fairly typical and predictable pattern for how we relate with those we consider neighbor and those we consider enemy.  But I say to you, don’t fall into the predictable pattern.  Do something that doesn’t let the enemy define the terms of the relationship.  Mess with their expectations.  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

There’s a story in the book of 2 Kings that fits this response.  The Arameans are at war with Israel.  The King of Aram sends his army out to find and destroy Elisha the prophet, but Elisha tricks them by leading them into an ambush in the capital city of Samaria.  When the king of Israel sees that the enemy armies are trapped, he asks Elisha if he should kill them all.  He asks this twice.  Elisha responds: “No…set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink; and let them go to their master.”  Elisha prepared a table not just in the presence of his enemies, but for his enemies.  The story ends with these words: “And the Arameans no longer came raiding into the land of Israel.” (2 Kings 6:22-23)

Many years later, Zacchaeus, as a tax collector, would have been considered an enemy by many of his own people, collaborating with Rome and profiteering from the occupation of his own kin.  But Jesus surprises everyone by inviting himself over for a meal.  Leave it to Jesus to figure out a way to eat with the enemy and get them to cover the tab.  

One of the great gifts of our Mennonite lineage is that it’s a tradition that has at least made an effort to live out the teaching of loving enemies.  I remember a Mennonite historian telling an audience that he was once asked what makes Mennonites unique.  His response was, Well, we’ve never killed anyone for disagreeing with us.  That is perhaps more a commentary on the horrors of church history than it is the specialness of Mennonites, but it does say something about the lived tradition.    

In the 16th century this looked like rejecting state and church violence and forming, in the words of Menno Simons, a church of “poor ones.”  In the 20th century it looked like conscientious objection to wars and alternative forms of service to one’s country.  In the 21st century it is looking more and more like facing down the evils of racism, patriarchy, and environmental destruction, listening to the voices of those most harmed by these enemies.  There’s a common thread here of refusing to buy into the us/them mode of enemy formation.  This is not something we have necessarily done well, but having our origins in being accused as the enemy of the state church perhaps gives us a competitive advantage in not doing unto others what was done to us.      

If Jesus is the model for loving enemies then it should be noted that he had some very harsh things to say to people who held power.  When Luke records Jesus’ teaching on loving your enemies he precedes it not with other instances of “you have heard it was said”, but a series of prophetic woes.  Luke 6:24-27:

“But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have received your consolation.
25 “Woe to you who are full now,
    for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
    for you will mourn and weep.
26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
27 “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” 

Since we fit most it not all of those categories of woe, it’s a good thing Jesus still loves us.  Offers us bread and cup to remind us of this love.  Perhaps we will yet learn to receive that love that comes with no cost, and so more easily give it. 

Jesus’ fiery mother Mary, while taking sanctuary with her cousin Elizabeth, both of them pregnant with world-altering life, knew that predictable patterns were about be shaken: She declared: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

We too can celebrate with Mary when those who have misused their power are removed from their thrones, when abusers are called to account and survivors are believed.  Sometimes loving an enemy means putting our energy into seeing that they no longer have the power to harm others, which is better for everyone, including the enemy. 

Elisha didn’t sit out the war with the Arameans.  He just brought a different strategy for winning.  Elisha protected his people from harm, and the enemy gathered their weapons and left town. 

Having enemies is a big responsibility.

If we need one more reason to disrupt the pattern of enemy hatred, Mennonite peacemaker and conflict transformation practitioner John Paul Lederach has some words for us.  He writes: “The well-being of our grandchildren is directly tied to the well-being of our enemy’s grandchildren.”  That’s in his book The Moral Imagination (p. 35).

If the well-being of our own grandchildren is at stake, then enemy love is also a form of self-love, and love for the selves who outlive us and carry forward the energies we hold in our bodies – an inheritance we perhaps don’t always realize we are passing along.     

As impossible as it seems in practice, enemy love, in whatever form it might take, from prophetic woe to mealtime conversation, might be the only way to preserve a future worth inhabiting.  And future generations might have the opportunity to be more free from the hatreds that defined our own generation.