Matthew 5: 43-48
April 3, 2011
Abraham Lincoln was once criticized by an associate of his for his generally congenial attitude toward political rivals. The associate asked, “Why do you always make friends with them? You should destroy them!” Lincoln’s reply was telling: “Am I not destroying my enemies when I make them my friends?” (http://homileticsonline.com/subscriber/illustrations_for_installment.asp?installment_id=93040583, visited on 3.20.2011).
I don’t know if the president had our scripture reading in mind when he said that, but they sure do share a lot in common, don’t they? To love as Jesus loved – so completely and so radically that you literally love your enemies to death. To do what we talked about last week – praying for those who have hurt you. That’s what we are called to do in our quest for “kingdom-living.” And it very well could be the most dangerous step we’ll ever take in our journey of faith. For to love your enemies means putting yourself at risk, making yourself vulnerable. And there’s no guarantee that your love will be returned. In fact, it’s quite possible that your enemy will become an even greater one. It happened when Jesus tried to love them, and they killed him for it.
So – why should we do something like love our enemies? Beyond the fact that Jesus says we should?
When I was a kid, I frequented my best friend’s house; he lived a few blocks from where I grew up in Raleigh. Maybe we’d ride bikes together, or watch a movie, or shoot baskets in his backyard. When we did shoot baskets, though, we always did so cautiously; because on the other side of the fence in his backyard lived Ms. Watson. And you did not want to cross Ms. Watson. Almost every time we were out there, Ms. Watson would come out and yell at us over the fence, accusing us of crazy things – we were being too loud, we were scaring her cat. We never saw a cat. One time playing basketball I missed a shot, which is one of the things I’m actually good at at basketball – and the ball went over the fence into her yard. We didn’t get the ball back. Even my friend’s parents couldn’t make any headway with her. We were convinced Ms. Watson was some minion sent by the devil himself, because there was just no explaining her and how she treated us.
Most of the time I just assumed Ms. Watson was born the way she was. But every once in a while I would wonder about her – who she was, where she came from. I wondered if she ever married or had kids – I never saw anyone else at home with her. I wondered if she had always been this way, nasty and mean and horrible and spiteful, or if something had caused that to happen. I wondered what she did at Christmas, when all of us were celebrating with our families. Or on her birthday – did she have a cake? Who came to her party? I wondered if she had anyone who loved her, or if she had anyone to love. I wondered all these things but then she’d yell at us and I’d stop wondering.
One day I walked in the front door of my friend’s house, which leads right to the kitchen. I saw my friend opening a bag of Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies and placing them on a paper plate. I remarked that some chocolate chip cookies would be the perfect snack before we went outside and played a little one-on-one. He surprised me by saying that they were not for us.
He covered them with saran wrap and walked out his back door. I followed him, all the way to the edge of the fence. And as I watched in disbelief and horror, my friend stepped up on a stump against the fence and leaned over into Ms. Watson’s yard. And as if that wasn’t enough to shake the world off its axis, he started calling out his evil neighbor’s name.
As expected, like a predator sensing its prey, Ms. Watson came bolting out the back door and rushed toward us; the fire burning in her eyes. She stopped just a few feet from the fence, and with a voice that conjured up every ounce of hate and malice, belted out, What do you want??
And that’s when my friend extended her the plate of chocolate chip cookies and told them they were for her. She froze, then she glared over at me as if to see if this was some joke. To be honest, I was wondering the same thing! But apparently, this was no joke. He stood there, holding the plate of cookies, as calm as could be. Ms. Watson took slow and deliberate steps toward the fence.
She took hold of the plate, lifted them to her face, and began sniffing the cookies, as if to check for traces of poison. Or maybe she was just soaking in the wonderful smell of store-bought chocolate chip cookies, their scent made even more pleasing by the fact that they were an unexpected and undeserved gift.
She looked at us, clearly uncertain as to what to do. This was the last thing she expected from two 11-year old boys who, she thought, had made her life miserable. And then at long last, a faint trace of a smile broke out; revealing itself cautiously and with much effort, as if it had been a long, long time since the muscles in her face had contorted that way. For the first time that I could remember, she spoke to us in a tone that did not suggest anger. Thank you, she said. I like chocolate chip cookies. And with that, she turned and walked back to her house with her plate of cookies, nibbling on one as she went.
It took us a little while to get used to the new Ms. Watson. I mean, she wasn’t totally changed – it wasn’t like she came over and started shooting hoops with us or anything. But she did give us our basketball back, and the cookies she started baking and giving to us on that same paper plate far exceeded anything bought in a store. She didn’t yell anymore. And she actually brought her cat out to meet us.
I never asked my friend what possessed him to do what he did that day. Who knows, maybe he felt guilty about something he had done and saw this as a karma balancing act. But this I do know – that day, my friend chose to enter into the turbulent and murky waters of the love Jesus spoke about. And that’s why Jesus tells us to love our enemies. Because it’s not just about changing the other person. It’s about changing ourselves, too.
They say that love is the stuff of Valentine’s Day cards and mushy love songs. They say love is “I heart you” etched into tree trunks and hugs and kisses. But the kind of love Jesus talks about is about stepping outside our comfort zone and extending our hearts, not just into the places where they’ll be warmly received, but also where they may very well be torn to pieces. Love is about standing on a stump and leaning over a fence with a paper plate of chocolate chip cookies, no matter what comes out of that back door when it swings open.
Love is about living faithfully in a world of tremendous fear – where individuals go on a shooting spree at a political rally, where communities in some far-off place are carpet-bombed, where harsh rhetoric from the extremes in news programs and social media can sap the life right out of you. Love is about living in that kind of world and choosing, against every instinct, to refuse to let that fear take hold of you. Love is about confronting head-on the forces in our world that subjugate, that dominate, that reek of injustice; and working diligently for reconciliation and redemption.
Love is about looking upon a world made long ago, a world which had seriously gone awry, veered way off course; and rather than trashing it and starting over, love is about choosing to empty yourself into human form and walk this earth not like the people, not with the people, but as one of the people. And love is about standing before a crowd on the hillside and speaking the truth, even though some would not agree, even though some would hear what he said and decide it was time for him to die.
Love is a dangerous, dangerous, dangerous thing. But love must always be the choice we make. As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said:
Somewhere, somebody must see that force begets force, hate begets hate. And it is a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for everybody. Somebody must have sense enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. And you do that by love. (From Loving Your Enemies, a speech by Martin Luther King Jr).
May you and I, followers of this great love, have sense enough to do that – with a plate of chocolate chip cookies, with our very lives. May we have the sense to know that we destroy our enemies only when we make them our friends. Thanks be to God, AMEN.