A sermon given by Rev. Dr. Peter A. Luckey on Sunday, February 19, 2017
Well, I’m so glad there is somebody with a strong voice here this morning. Thank you, Dr. Richard Todd Payne. Thank you.
Love your enemies. If you had to pick three sayings of Jesus’ commands to you, three of the hardest things Jesus is asking you to do, would you include in your list, “Love your enemies?” I would. William Barclay, who writes a commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, one of my favorite writers, says that this passage from the Sermon on the Mount, (Matthew 5:38-48), is the most concentrated expression of the Christian ethic of our relationships that you can find in the entire Bible.
And so we begin with this crescendo of the Sermon the Mount that Liz Miller just read to us, that we’ve been talking about for the last several weeks. And by now you’ve gotten used to this refrain of “you have heard it said…but I say to you”. “You have heard it said eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth,” but I say to you do not retaliate at all. The eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, my friends, was the ancient law called the lex talionis, which was to put a limit on how much you could retaliate against your adversary. So “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” it actually was placing a limitation on how much retaliation you could extract from a foe.
But Jesus goes further and says “you’ve heard it said, eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” but I say to you, do not retaliate at all. And then just when we’re thinking about dropping that stone or putting back in our mouth the words that might fly from our mouth, that quick comeback, thinking that’s all Jesus is asking us to do is to not retaliate. Why then, Jesus takes us one step further, like music moves to a higher and higher crescendo. And he says, “you’ve heard it said love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.” Love. The highest form of the verb love, the Greek verb agape, is love as an action, not just as a feeling, to love and to act on the best interests of the other, your enemy.
What’s extraordinary, my friends, is the same Spirit that’s in Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is the Spirit that is in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when on August 28, 1963, he stands at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivers his “I Have a Dream” speech. And what’s extraordinary, still, is that King had so much cause to want to retaliate. After all, he had been spat upon. After all, people had called his home and hung up on him, issuing death threats to Dr. King and his family. After all, part of the African American movement had been victimized by so much hatred. And yet in that speech, not a word of retaliation, not a word. But only “Someday I have a dream, that the sons and daughters of former slaves and sons and daughters of former slave owners on the red hills of Georgia will come together around the table of brotherhood and sisterhood.” It was truly an act of the Spirit, and I don’t say that word lightly, my friends.
Just a little story, the day before he gave that speech on the 27th of August, there was a conversation about how long the speech should be and people had told Dr. King you’ve got eight minutes. Eight minutes? Well that’s time barely to clear your throat. You got eight minutes! And Dr. King said, well, I can’t go over eight minutes because they’ll get mad, they’ll get angry. At that point, Walter Fauntroy, his aide said to him, he said, Martin, you let the Lord lead you and let the Spirit say what the Spirit needs to say. And so it happened.
Now friends, I know that the Spirit is strong but the flesh is weak. The flesh is week. It is not easy to love our enemies. It is not easy to practice this text that we’ve heard ever since we’ve been children in Sunday school, and preached from pulpits to love your enemy and turn the other cheek. But to actually practice it? To imagine that we would love those who have been bullies or love those that have hurt our neighbors and loved ones, how can we? It is such a difficult text to comprehend.
And as I thought about this text myself, I thought about what right do I have as a preacher to say to you, to interpret Jesus’s words to you that you should love your enemies, when I thought to myself, well who are my enemies? What enemies do I have in my life? I know that I’ve offended people at times. And well, sometimes I avoid eye contact when I go to Dillon’s and I escape in the frozen food aisle, but you know, do I have enemies? Do I have people who are really my enemies? And I thought to myself, you know, I don’t really have enemies. And I thought, you know, the reason why is not because I’m this person of great character, it’s only because of the privilege I’ve had in my life. I’ve never been an African American and falsely accused of a crime. I’ve never had to be gay or lesbian and have a family member disown me because of my orientation. I’ve never been abused in ways that are so deep and injurious. I’ve never had that experience. So what right do I have to, and I hesitate, to interpret Jesus’ words to you and say yes, you’re supposed to love your enemies, and I’ve not had enemies of my own.
But friends, Dr. King did have enemies. He did. And I remember in the 60s, and I remember people in my own congregation that couldn’t stand him and did not want anything to do with Dr. King, and how the white community turned against him. But even more alarming, perhaps, what the fact that many in the African American community didn’t want to have any part of Dr. King’s movement. That was the rise of the Black Power movement. And people like Stokely Carmichael and Eldridge Cleaver and Malcom X argued that there needed to be a more vigorous response to the oppression that the African American community experienced in this country. And so there was a call for Black Power, preaching Black Power. Not nonviolence, not love your enemy. Do you realize that Malcom X called the March on Washington in 1963 when Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, he called it the “Farce on Washington”? That’s what Dr. King had to endure.
Now friends, Martin Luther King, Jr. took that text of love your enemies and turned it into a movement. It was Dr. King who said: you cannot fight hate with hate. You can only fight hate with love. That’s right out of the Gospel text, Love your enemies. That’s what Dr. King said. What Dr. King, who started a movement, and said we must resist evil. We must stand in the face of hatred. But at the same time we cannot capitulate to those that would hate. We cannot return hate for hate.
Is the Dream still relevant today? Is the movement still important for us in this time? I say absolutely yes. Absolutely yes. It is extraordinary in our time, my friends, but there is a rise of hatred in our country today. The Southern Poverty Law Center documented between the election on November 9 and November 14, there were 437 incidents of intimidation and hatred after the election, targeting blacks and other people of color, Muslims, immigrants, LGBT community and women. There has been an increase in hate crimes in the last several months. We are living in a time when there is more hatred and not less being implemented in our country. And it’s with deep and a heavy heart, and I speak out of the depth of my own heart to you my friends, it so pains me to think that the leader of our country is about to issue an executive order this week to thwart the courts that will again initiate a travel ban on seven predominantly Muslim countries. You can’t come here. And then we wonder why young people are being taught to hate? Why teenagers at Free State High School are shouting: build the wall, build the wall? And we wonder why? It is, my friends, at the highest level that the vicious attack dogs of hatred are being unleashed in our country. And then we wonder why people don’t want to come to the United States? Well, why would they want to come if they know that they’re not welcome here, if this can’t be a home for them?
It is a time when the “I Have a Dream” speech is so deeply relevant to our time today. And I just leave you with three final thoughts. Number one, just as Dr. King took his movement into the very face of hatred, so we must today stand fast in the face of hatred and we must meet hatred and resist it and stand fast with one another in our Gospel of love. Number two, and here’s the hardest thing of all, even as we stand and resist hatred we cannot let that hatred into our own hearts. We can’t let it define the contours of our own being. We, like Dr. King and like Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount, we must fight hate with love. We must learn to understand and to love even our adversaries. And that may be the hardest thing of all. But finally, the very last sentence of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount is my absolute favorite, and it’s one that gives me hope. Jesus says: Be perfect as God is perfect. Or as I like to translate it as: Be compassionate as God is compassionate. Which is to say, my friends, that we are all on this journey together. We’re not finished yet. But the goal is in some ways to take on and reflect the holiness and the love of God, to become more like God. And while we’re in that project the greatest hope is recognizing that we always do fall short but by God’s grace we are forgiven. And by God’s grace we take on this journey together. And by God’s amazing grace we don’t give up on this path, to love our enemies. Amen.