February 20, 2022 ~ Rev. Beckie Sweet
A man who had reached his 100th birthday was being interviewed by a reporter.
“What are you most proud of?” the reporter asked.
“Well,” said the man, “I don’t have an enemy in the world.”
“What a beautiful thought! How inspirational!” said the reporter.
“Yep,” added the man, “I outlived every last one of them!”
I thought it would be helpful to have a moment of laughter before we dig into this teaching from Jesus, which can be both inspirational and most challenging. In fact, this is one of the passages of scripture that I would rather avoid on Sunday mornings, because in order to do justice to the lessons Jesus presents in a dozen verses would take hours of presentation and discourse. Not only does this scripture text speak powerfully to us as individuals and to us as a Body of Christ, it also challenges us during Black History month, and in the midst of our current situation of international relations with Russia’s military knocking at the proverbial doors of Ukraine. Rather than keep you here long into the afternoon, I will narrow the focus, and ask that we reserve the rest of the conversation for another day.
This text from Luke’s gospel comes to us in the midst of the “Sermon on the Plain.” Many of us are a bit more familiar with the parallel text in the “Sermon on the Mount” from Matthew’s gospel. What was shared with us today follows the section called “blessings and woes,” like Matthew’s Beatitudes. Those passages focus on RECEIVING. Today’s text focuses on GIVING. Both convey how Jesus has come to turn the world upside down! Jesus offers blessings for people who have most likely never been blessed. To all those who have been successful in the world’s eyes he says, “How terrible for you!” Then he invites the disciples and listeners to participate in the holy work of offering love and grace to EVERYONE, especially those who do not deserve it. When done well, everyone’s identity is transformed by God’s love!
When we love our enemies, we are loving the image of God within them. We love them not because we think they “deserve” it, but because WE have experienced God’s love and forgiveness in our own lives, and we know the power it holds.
A story from the 4th century Egyptian Desert Fathers goes like this: Some robbers came once to a hermitage and said, “We’ve come to take everything out of your cell.” The hermit said, “Take whatever you see, my sons.” So, they took what they found in the cell, and went away. But they missed a little bag that was hidden in a dark corner. The hermit picked it up, and ran after them, shouting, “My sons, you missed this; take it.” They were amazed at his patience and restored everything and did penance before him. They said to each other, “Truly, this is a man of God.”
We know that sometimes people do hurtful things because they are hurting within. It can be hard to know how to treat others well if you have never been treated well. This does not excuse bad behavior, but it makes it even more important for us to surprise others with love and compassion. Our “enemy” may come to know the surprising love of God through US!
I will admit that I have always struggled with this scripture because I imagine how difficult it must be for someone who has been deeply hurt or abused to hear it. Loving someone does not mean staying with an abuser. Forgiving someone does not mean accepting their behavior and allowing the harm to continue. Christians have two main rules: love God and love others as we love ourselves. Love of self requires self-care, self-preservation, and the freedom to choose love. The most loving thing we can do for an abuser is to take away the opportunity to abuse again.
To get the authentic meaning of this text, we must read the literal words and add the Spirit-led transforming message for our lives. As God has given us mercy, compassion, and forgiveness, we should be sharing that with others. And as others receive that kind of transforming love from us, they will pass it along as well.
Rev. David Cho, pastor of the world’s largest church in Seoul, Korea – with some 750,000 members – has an interesting rule for his congregation. He tells them that they are not allowed to witness to someone until they have performed three good deeds for them. They are actually forbidden to mention the name of Jesus until they have first helped that person fix an appliance, or brought them a meal when they were sick, or helped them construct their house. Pastor Cho believes that only after three such acts will the heart be open to the gospel. Only after a human relationship of trust and care has been established will another be receptive to the gospel message of love and transformation.
Do you have an enemy? Love them. How do you develop this love? Do good for them. As you do good for your enemies, the amazing miracle of divine love will blossom in your heart for them as well. You will reveal what the love of God has done for you, and what it can do for others. You will be like Christ to them. Then, unlike the man at the beginning of this message, you will not be so focused on outliving your enemies, but on living for them. That is what Christ has done for us and what we are called to do for others.
I believe it was Sarah Murray who, during this Black History Month, highlighted the life of Biddy Bridget Mason, who lived from 1815-1891. Biddy was born into slavery and “given” as a wedding gift to a Mormon couple in Mississippi named Robert and Rebecca Smith. In 1847 at age 32, Biddy Mason was forced to walk from Mississippi to Utah tending to the cattle behind her master’s 300-wagon caravan. She “WALKED” from Mississippi to Utah. That’s 1,618.9 miles!
After four years in Salt Lake City, Smith took the group to a new Mormon settlement in San Bernadine, California in search of gold. Biddy Mason soon discovered that the California State Constitution made slavery illegal, and that her masters had a plan to move them all to Texas to avoid freeing them.
With the help of some freed Blacks she had befriended, Biddy and the other slaves attempted to run away to Los Angeles, but they were intercepted by Smith and brought back. However, when he tried to leave the state with his family and slaves, a local posse prevented them from leaving.
Biddy had Robert Smith brought into court on a writ of habeas corpus. She, her daughters, and the ten other slaves were held in jail for their own safety to protect them from an angry and violent pro-slavery mob until the judge heard the case and granted their freedom.
Now free, Biddy and her three daughters moved to Los Angeles where they worked and saved enough money to buy a house at 331 Spring St. in downtown LA. Biddy was employed as a nurse, midwife, and domestic servant. She was one of the first black women to own land in the city.
She had the intelligence and boldness to use part of her land as a temporary resting place for horses and carriages, and people visiting town paid money in exchange for the space. This was considered the first “parking lot” in LA.
Knowing what it meant to be oppressed and friendless, Biddy Mason immediately began a philanthropic career by opening her home to the poor, hungry, and homeless. Through hard work, saving, and investing carefully, she was able to purchase large amounts of real estate including a commercial building which provided her with enough income to help build schools, hospitals, and churches.
Her financial fortunes continued to increase until she accumulated a fortune of almost $300,000. In today’s money that would be $6 million. Her most noted accomplishment is the founding of the First AME Church in California. In her tireless work she was known for saying “If you hold your hand closed, nothing good can come in. The open hand gives in abundance; even as it receives.”
Eugene Peterson, in paraphrasing selected verses of today’s scripture states:
“To you who are ready for the truth, I say this: Love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the supple moves of prayer for that person.
“Here is a simple rule of thumb for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you; then grab the initiative and do it for them.
“I tell you, love your enemies. Help and give without expecting a return. You’ll never—I promise—regret it. Live out this God-created identity the way our [God] lives toward us, generously and graciously, … Give away your life; you’ll find life given back, but not merely given back—given back with bonus and blessing. Giving, not getting, is the way. Generosity begets generosity.”