sermons, songs, etceteras
(c) 5/29/20 Tony Webster (flickr) // Minnesota State Patrol troopers stand in formation, wearing riot gear and holding wooden batons, at Minnehaha Avenue and 27th Avenue South near the Minneapolis Police Department's 3rd Precinct, as the Minneapolis Fire Department battles blazes at Lake Street businesses, following the publication of a video showing a white Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a handcuffed and unarmed Black man, killing him.
This sermon was originally preached on 2/20/2022 at Oak Grove Lutheran Church in Richfield, MN. The service may be viewed here.
Seventh Sunday after Epiphany Lectionary Texts:
Genesis 45:3-11, 15 | Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40 | 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50
Gospel Text read from the Native American Translation of the New Testament (included below sermon): Luke 6:27-28
Good morning, beloved of God. The Image of God in me delights in the Image of God in you. The humanity in me honors the humanity in you. The Christ in me calls out to Christ in you, that we may love one another.
I offer this sacred greeting because we have occasion to ponder what Jesus meant when he taught his listeners to Love our enemies and bless our oppressors, not only because it happens to be today’s text, but because it is also today’s reality. We, like Jesus, live in an era of stark, often violent division, increasing disparities between the rich and poor, Black and white, urban and rural, Republican and Democrat, and so on. There is no lack of hatred for the Other, and humanity’s capacity for inhumanity seems boundless.
Just this week, multiple friends of mine were attacked for their race, their gender, or their sexual orientation. My own call to ministry was mocked by a stranger on the internet -- again. I don’t think it’s lost on any of us that we in the Twin Cities, in the USA, in the world continue to grapple with what it means to care for one another in an increasingly polarized world. And we as a society and individuals are still figuring out how to grieve so many deaths and move on with life amidst a pandemic we’re all sick of.
I don’t start with all this heavy to be a Debbie Downer but to tell you this from the jump: I hate preaching about love. To me it often feels fickle, weak, mushy. Like a bypass around real pain and grief and rage. But today I have no choice, because it’s what Jesus preached. So I greet you from the fertile soil of our shared humanity, trusting -- hoping, anyway -- that Love Wins.
To set the stage for what I think is the essence of this part of Jesus’s sermon on the plain, I want to start with a few presuppositions that have grounded and guided my exploration this week:
First, in Jesus’s view and experience, having and being enemies is inevitable AND it is wrapped up in Power with a capital P.
In Luke 1, we’re told that Jesus was raised by a Palestinian Jew who gave birth amidst violent imperial rule and whose Magnificat explicitly rejected it. Mary proclaimed that God’s greatness casts down the Mighty from their thrones and exalts the oppressed, and she sang this proclamation against a ruler who would force her family into exile when he began hunting all boys Jesus’ age. In Luke 4, Jesus proclaimed himself the fulfillment of God’s promise of good news to the poor, release to the captive, sight for the blind, and liberation for the oppressed. Which is just to remind us that Jesus’ birth, maturation, and entry into ministry all occurred within a particular socio-political context that was deeply, often violently unjust and full of enmity, from the top down.
So, while Jesus will get to how this can all play out on a personal level, the enmity he first names, as Rev. Melissa Florer-Bixler puts it, is “dependent upon systemic and coercive power” which, among other things, legally permitted Roman soldiers to hit a person without consequence; and debtors to take a person’s outer coat as collateral against debt. Jesus and his followers had real enemies at the highest levels, who wished them harm and had the full backing of the empire to threaten and subjugate them.
Second, and as most of us already know, you don’t have to MAKE enemies in order to HAVE and BE enemies. Oftentimes, we are made into enemies on account of our race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, poverty, disability, or even our political or theological opinions. We are treated as lesser, withheld rights, or simply bullied, ignored, or erased by people who by no fault of our own don’t want us around. And because this happens TO us, the question becomes not whether we will HAVE enemies, but how we will BE an enemy to those who do harm to us and our communities.
And third, once we recognize that power structures exist and that their balance is set to for some and against others, we see that disengagement or neutrality is not an option. As Desmond Tutu put it, “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Or, as my Black, Indigenous, Disabled and Queer teachers so often say: silence is violence.
As uncomfortable as it can be to admit, we will always stand somewhere. We don’t get the luxury of standing outside of what is, so we should choose well. Will we stand in solidarity with the oppressed or the oppressor? Who is my enemy, and what kind of enemy am I? That’s what Jesus is going to teach us: How to be an enemy.
As I mentioned, Jesus begins this teaching with a call to Love our enemies and bless those who curse us, to pray goodness for those who use their power to threaten or do harm. It is not coincidental that Jesus called on common injustices of Empire as his springboard into this teaching about enemy love. Rome was good at using every legal means to dehumanize, humiliate, and exhaust the empire’s enemies, provoke a reaction, and create pretext for military action. So while some modern readers have attempted to spiritualize or abstract this teaching into less-concrete or more metaphorical terms, or to mushify it and make it more palatable by reducing Love to niceness or passivity, Jesus is not at all hyperbolic here. He is saying exactly what he means in very practical terms: “If your enemy who carries the full weight of the State’s favor slaps you on the side of your face,” he says, “show the strength of your heart and offer the other side.”
I suspect that for Palestinian Jews who’d been under the violent heel of numerous empires by the time Jesus began his ministry, this sounded absurd and wrong. Just as wrong as it sounds to me when people tell me to stop being so critical and loud against Queerphobia and misogyny, which so directly threaten both my body and my livelihood. Why should anyone whose body has already been conscripted, wounded, or humiliated offer up more skin to an enemy that not only feels no conviction for their cruelty, but actually relishes in their violent abuse of power? What and who does it help to endure compounded oppression, and how can that be called Love?
Theologian and author Walter Wink wrote a bunch of books on this, theorizing that the point of turning the other cheek and enduring double the violence or humiliation inflicted was to expose the inhumanity of an enemy’s tactics.
And I don’t disagree with him! I recall images of Black folks and their accomplices sitting peacefully at lunch counters and having food dumped on their heads; images of nonviolent, unarmed water protectors at Standing Rock being shot with rubber bullets and sprayed with high pressure water hoses by Military and Police. I see Darnella Frazier filming George Floyd’s murder, and all the other witnesses who could not intervene but bore witness and held space, and yes! In each scene, the contrast between how two enemies engage each other is stark, and it lays bare the wickedness and inhumanity of the powerful and privileged against the oppressed! As a revelator of wickedness, non-violent resistance is definitely effective.
But I am not convinced that’s what Jesus is ultimately after here. Rather, I think that by evoking stark, irredeemable injustices, Jesus is calling us above all to protect our own hearts, our own humanity, in the face of an enemy’s inhumanity.
Queer Black author, poet, and civil rights activist Audre Lorde said it like this: "The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Which just means we cannot expose, confront, or dismantle our enemies’ Power by mimicking their tactics back to them.
To be a good enemy, a loving enemy, we must, first and foremost, stay so firmly connected to our own humanity, our own strong heart, that we cannot be provoked to play by their rules. That is what Jesus is getting at here in calling us to turn the other cheek: Show the strength of your heart, and honor it. Protect it. Do not forfeit your humanity to anyone for any reason. Your love may be all you have in the end, so do not trade it.
But …or And… — and this is where Jesus begins to articulate what enemy love can look like beyond the city square, in our personal lives — that doesn’t mean becoming a doormat, either. Enemy love doesn’t prescribe silence or denial, but rather, intentionality. Jesus presumes there will be Beggars who need what we have, and that we will give freely without expectation of repayment. And that there will be Takers -- people who steal money, time, energy, even dignity from us -- and they will never acknowledge how much it cost us, nor even that anything of value was given. What then? How do we love those who reduce us to consumables?
Let me share a personal example: I have been known, over the years, to go hard in arguments on the internet. I’ve fed trolls, which is always just a foolish endeavor because when you argue with people you know only to fight, you will always lose, and you’ll look pretty silly as well. But it’s not just trolls. I’ve also argued with family and friends, and been hung out and humiliated when friendly, if passionate disagreements, got too personal.
I don’t share this to make you feel sorry for me — I’m a grown up with a well-paid therapist and two spiritual directors, so I’m okay! I share it to underscore how easily the wasting of time and energy can become a soul-sucking expenditure of precious Love that I could have spent on others or on myself.
I have not always protected my own humanity or honored theirs. And while I can pray I have not done them harm, I suspect I have -- and I know I have been harmed.
So I am learning to follow what I believe is Jesus’ instruction here, which is to choose my battles and set my boundaries wisely, to say Yes and No with intention, because I cannot expect a return on whatever resources, time, or Strength of Heart I spend with enemies.
And finally, there is this: Whatever well we draw from when we engage our enemies is the well that will be refilled. When we draw from a well of judgment and unforgiveness, we will be filled with more judgment and unforgiveness.
But! When we draw from empathy, compassion, solidarity and our shared humanity, we will release and be released, we will liberate others and be liberated. It may sound counterintuitive and even hippy dippy – given how easy and natural it feels to feed anger, fight enemies, and judge others we believe are wrong – but I believe this radical Love that chooses NOT to fight out of protection of our own and our enemy’s humanity, is our Native State.
Before we knew Good from Evil, we knew Love -- we were made of Love. So when we nurture and strengthen our connection to that Strong Heart, that First Natural heart, we recover our own humanity from under the rubble of collective hate, and in doing so we offer our enemies a path to the same liberation. And that is how to be a good enemy.
Friends, I’ll be honest: this business about choosing and loving our Enemies sucks. It is a difficult and painful strategy to stand in solidarity with our oppressed siblings, to lean into righteous anger and experience the fullness of grief, without being consumed by rage.
Enmity is inevitable. And our connection to each other's humanity is fragile.
Jesus knew that better than most. And that is why He teaches us here to never disconnect from our own humanity, but to fiercely protect it; to honor it with our intentional Yeses and our deliberate Nos; and to Love hard, especially our enemies, knowing that the well from which we draw out Love for them will be filled and refilled and refilled again by the same Christ whose enemies killed him — and then Confessed him King. Love will win.
Gospel text: Luke 6:27-38
First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament
First Nations Version Translation Council, ed. InterVarsity Press, 2021
27 "Hear me, you who are listening now, I am telling you to love your enemies, do good to the ones who look down on you, 28 return blessing for cursing, and send up good prayers for the ones who give you trouble and pain.
29 "If someone slaps you on the side of your face, show the strength of your heart and offer the other side. In the same way, if a thief takes your coat, offer your shirt also.
30 "When someone in need asks, do not hold back. Do what you can to help. If someone takes what is yours, let them keep it."
"Here is another way to see what I am saying: 31 Help others in the same way you would want them to help you.
32-34 "Where is the honor in only showing love to the ones who do the same for you? Why should you be given respect for doing good to the ones who do you good, or for lending only to the ones who can repay you? Even tribal tax collectors and outcasts do these things.
35 "Instead, show love and respect to your enemies, help them when they are in need without asking them to repay you. This will show that you are children of your Father from above, for he is kind and takes pity on the ones with bad hearts, even when they do not thank him for it. 36 So then, show kindness to others in the same way as your Father the Great Spirit.
37 Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. When you release others from their wrongdoings, you will be released from yours. 38 The amount you measure out to others is the amount that comes back, like a basket that has been filled to the top, shaken down, and packed together, until it overflows. What you give out will come back to you -- full circle."