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Sunday, February 20th 2022

“Love Your Enemies?” Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers at The Episcopal Church of the Incarnation

Readings for the 7th Sunday after Epiphany (c): Genesis 45:3-11,15, Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42, I Corinthians 15:35-38,42-50, Luke 6:27-38

Note: This reflections looks at Jesus’ call to love our enemies within the context of Luke and Matthew’s versions of the beatitudes which I have copied at the end of these reflections.

Sometimes when we hear the scriptures it’s like grace itself just lands on us, drops on us, as we can so hear and experience what God is about, what God is saying to us. Other times we have to wrestle with the scriptures, like Jacob wrestling with God, to get a blessing from them. This should not be surprising given how we often hear the scriptures through the cultures and ideologies of colonialism, patriarchy, individualism, capitalism, ego-psychology, meritocracy and its counterpart—various systems of shaming. It wasn’t only enslaved African Americans whose first encounter with the bible was the way their masters were using it to justify their abuse. Those who have sought to conquer, control and exploit others have constantly striven to make God and the Bible in their own image. This is part of why learning the different texts we find in the bible is so helpful. You can make any one text in the bible justify almost anything, but when you listen to the variety of voices and perspectives in the bible—this is so much harder to do.

In Luke’s gospel today we hear; “ Jesus said, ‘I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also’.” Love your enemies? How many women have heard this as a text that says they should tolerate their violent partner’s abuse? How many poor and exploited people throughout history have been told this is what they must do to get into heaven? If we don’t hear this as totally bad news, something that would make things worse, it’s so easy to hear it as simply impossible, or something we could only do at the price of cutting ourselves off from our humanity.

Today I want to look at Jesus’ call to love our enemies within the context of Luke and Matthew’s different versions of the Beatitudes. Looking at them together gives us a fuller picture of what each is saying and what this call to love your enemies is really about . This is important not only because it is one the most misunderstood of Jesus’s teachings, but I also think it’s one of the key issues we’re facing in this time.

First of all, it’s important to note the different context for Luke and Matthew’s versions of the Beatitudes. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus goes up onto a mountain top and presents this teaching to his disciples. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus has been up on a mountain praying and he comes down from the mountain and presents these teachings, not just to his disciples but to the great multitude that has been following him looking for healing, people from all over Judea, Jerusalem and the Gentile cities of Tyre and Sidon. In Luke’s gospel Jesus presents these teachings while standing on a level place. For Luke this is significant because for social equality is at the heart of the Good News so he’s presenting Jesus as talking to people face to face, not from above them. We will come back to the importance of Matthew’s having Jesus present these teaching to a small group of disciples rather than the masses.

In Luke’s gospel we hear that Jesus then “looked up at his disciples and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Human One. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets."

These four proclamations of blessing parallel Matthew’s nine statements of blessing beginning with “Blessed are the poor in Spirit” and ending with “Blessed are you who are persecuted for my sake.” But rather than presenting Matthews more extensive list of who God is choosing to bless, to lift up, Luke instead goes on to say who is going to be cast down.

"But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

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.

Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets."

They are hard words. While part of me rejoices in them, another part immediately feels empathy for the rich, the full, those who are laughing and those who all speak well of. I think we are meant to feel empathy as we hear they are headed into pain.

It’s also so striking to me that these words come from Luke, because in so many ways, especially in contrast to Matthew, Luke is the brother who doesn’t like conflict, who wants everybody to be happy and get along. For example, in the Book of Acts, Luke seems to cover over some of the conflicts among the disciples. He suggests the conflict over Jewish and Gentile Christians breaking bread together was resolved through a divine revelation that came through a dream Peter had, rather than the kind of public confrontation and conflict Paul speaks about having with Peter in his Letter to the Galatians. Luke’s gospel is the gospel in which the Christmas angel says to the Shepherds “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” so why does he go out of his way to proclaim that, at least initially, the wealthy and powerful are going to be unhappy?

It’s because, for Luke, the Kingdom of God is about a new order in our world, a new social order, a new social reality which, we hear in his Book of Acts, turns the current world order upside down. In other words, Luke making sure we don’t spiritualize Jesus teaching to the extent that they no longer have earthly implications. He’s calling on us to recognize that, at least initially, some are going to be terrified, or horrified, or grief stricken about this new social reality, much as the Southern Planter class reacted when those they had enslaved won their freedom. In other words, Luke is trying to wake us up to the implications of the call to love as a call to social equality.

Now, we need to be careful here. Part of the culture of domination has been to teach us the idea that we live in a meritocracy in which some deserve to be rewarded and some to be punished. If we read the text through that lens we can hear it simply as a call simply to reverse whose being punished and whose being rewarded. That might lead us to rejoice in the suffering of others. Rejoicing in the suffering of others seems the very opposite of the call to love. I don’t hear Luke calling for punishment, but rather the transformation necessary for us to be able to live together in peace. As Luke says early in his gospel, for peace to reign on earth, for all of humanity to see salvation—the valleys must be raised up and the mountains brought low. The poor and poor in Spirit must become strong and claim their voice and, in Mary’s words, the proud must be scattered in the imagination of their hearts. This is because the reason why the poor have so little and suffer as they do is precisely because of the way the wealthy have claimed our common resources as their private possessions. If you’ve lived your whole life feeling your identity is based on being above and separate from others and feeling secure because of your ability to control others through wealth and coercion, true social equality may sound like death itself. And that’s usually how the wealthy and powerful have responded to movements for social equality, whether they were on Southern Plantations, or in Northern Industrial Cities, or even in more liberal towns like Ann Arbor. It’s painful.

It’s also striking to me that Matthew, who is so focused on justice issues, and who so clearly portrays how those who reject the reign of love are going to suffer-- doesn’t do it here. I suspect it’s because he doesn’t want to give Jesus’ disciples any grounds for judging others.

Now, immediately following the statements of blessings and woes in Luke’s gospel, Jesus then goes on to call on those who are listening to love evil doers, just as God does, not because of the evil they do ( God hates the evil they do) but because God loves all people, as incomprehensible as that may be to us. So much of what we hear in this section sounds like the bad news that we’re supposed to be like little gods who go around tolerating evil because we’re so spiritual.

Here is where I find Matthew’s version of the beatitudes to be a helpful corrective because in Matthew gospel these aren’t just some vague instructions about being kind. Rather they reflect Matthew’s understanding that it is going to be in and through those who God is choosing to lift up, the poor in spirit, those who are hungry and thirsty or homeless, those hungering for justice and peace, those being persecuted for pursuing social transformation, who are also going to be the means through which God’s will is going to be done on earth as it is in heaven. For Matthew, this is what it means to be a disciple, one who is about this work. This work is not for the faint hearted and needs to be understood in the context of Jesus’ other teachings, which is I suspect why Matthew presents Jesus giving these instructions to his disciples, rather than the masses.

In Matthew’s gospel Jesus’s proclamation of the blessings are immediately followed by the proclamation: “You are the salt of the earth…. You are the light of the world.” You are the light of the world. What kind of blasphemy is that? Isn’t God the light of the world? Isn’t Jesus the light of the world? Yes, and Matthew says, and as a God follower, you are also to be the light of the world.

Matthew then goes on to specify how this God revolution, this social revolution, is going to happen: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

Not knowing the context, this can sound like a call to be nice while being abused. Instead, Matthew’s listeners would have heard it as a call to the kind of non-violent truth struggle that Gandhi and Martin Luther King saw as the only effective way to overthrow the systems of domination and exploitation.

Matthew specifies what to do if you are struck on the “right” cheek. His audience would have known that when someone strikes you on the right check that it was not a direct punch but a back slap. This was the blow people at the time used against those they viewed as their social inferiors. It was a blow designed not just to inflict pain but to humiliate and establish who is superior and who is inferior. The backslap was how masters hit their slaves, husbands hit their wives, parents their children. If you turn the other cheek, that is the left cheek, they would have had to punch you directly which in that time would have signified that you were their equal. In other words, turning the other cheek was a strategy for affirming your worth, your equality, without automatically getting you killed.

Matthew’s audience knew that if someone took your coat, it would have been for the failure to repay a loan for which people put up their coats as collateral. If in the process of giving whoever gave you the loan also the undergarment you wore beneath your coat, it would not only would have shown the world what they were doing to you, but it would also have shamed them for in the Jewish world it was considered shameful to look on someone who was naked. It’s the strategy Francis embraced in dealing with his wealthy father who had taken him to court for giving his money to the poor. It was the strategy the Doukhobors in Canada have used when they feel others are trying to persecute or coerce them. It’s surprisingly effective.

Matthew’s audience would also have understood the Roman law that said that Roman soldiers could force you to carry their heavy backpacks for one mile, but no more than that. Thus carrying a pack for longer puts the soldier in the position of having to ask you to put down their pack. This reverses the power dynamic.

In other words, the original context for these teachings was about strategies to affirm your human dignity, your equality, and put an ax to the humiliating experiences and the ideologies that lead some to see themselves as superior to others, which is the foundation of the domination system. For Matthew, being a disciple is not just about being blessed and healed by God, it is about revealing the contradiction between how those doing evil view themselves and how they are behaving. This was part of how Gandhi’s movement overthrew British imperialism in India and the Civil Rights’ movement overthrew white supremacy in the South. It’s the opposite of cooperating with abuse.

This morning Robert Thurman and Sharon Salzberg were on “On Being” speaking of ways Buddhism can help us further understand this call to love your enemies in way that doesn’t dehumanize us. Thurman pointed out that whereas Jesus was only able to teach his disciples for 3 to 4 years the Buddha got to teach his disciples for 46 years so he had much more time to explain his teachings and how they worked. Buddha taught people to love their enemies because “hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can drive out hate.” That’s something that I believe Martin Luther King used to quote. From their talk I heard three things that seem vital.

First, we cannot love our enemies in a good or helpful way, unless we learn to love ourselves. Thus we might want to first take these teachings and apply them not to our enemies but to ourselves. Can we learn to practice loving kindness with ourselves by holding ourselves in love despite all the things we’ve done, or had done to us, that we hate? We then might want to try applying these teachings to our friends and loved ones or people in our community. I suspect you can’t sustain any loving relationships over time without learning to respond in ways that are both lovingly truthful and non-retaliatory.

Secondly, Buddhism teaches there is an in-between state between hating our enemies and loving our enemies which is the state of not hating our enemies. From what I understood this seems to begin with having compassion on ourselves, in part by letting ourselves feel our hatred for our enemies and then reflecting on the real consequences of our hatred and the way it consumes us and twists us. It helps us to see that though we may not love our enemies, we don’t want to let the harms they have done us further victimize us, so we begin to let go of hatred. Importantly, letting go of hatred is not about letting go of anger, because anger can be a source not only of vital energy but also of fierce mental clarify. We may want to transform our anger, but we need that energy and intellectual insight.

Third, only after having learned to love ourselves, might we learn to love our enemies, by seeing how the harms they have done, or are doing, are rooted in their woundedness and fear. Loving others is about desiring their well-being. Desiring the happiness of our enemies is not simply for their sake, but also for the sake of others, because if become happy they are less likely to harm others.

I find all of these ideas helpful as we consider how we might love our enemies in a way that doesn’t do violence to us and helps promote justice, peace, equality and real healing.

Now to return to Matthew’s version of the beatitudes. While I embrace Matthew’s vision that we need to learn to live and act from a place of Godly love, that is a place of understanding , creative, redemptive good will for all, I have a strongly negative reaction to the way Matthew concludes these teaching by having Jesus say “Be ye perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.” Whatever perfection meant in Matthew’s time it clearly has comes to means something radically different now because in our world the whole vision of perfectionism is totally inhuman and tied to an idolatrous conception of what’s possible, and that vision of meritocracy which keeps people from doing the very things Matthew is calling us to do. So here I find it’s helpful to turn back to Luke and his translation of this text which does not hold up perfection but rather compassion: “Be ye compassionate/merciful as God is compassionate/merciful.”

So---what I hope you are hearing today, through Luke’s and Matthew’s gospels is the nature of the Good News.

First, that the Beatitudes, God’s blessings, are about God’s new creation, who God is choosing to uplift to create a new social reality so that peace and love can reign on earth through equality and justice.

Secondly, that the blessing of this new creation is going to happen through God’s working through human beings, and often the very human beings who have been seen as the cursed of the world.

It’s a stunning revelation. It seems impossible. I suspect this is part of why Paul talks about how with God all things are possible and why he is so insistent that just as God has raised Jesus from the dead so, even now, God is working in us to raise us from the dead so that we might help to give birth to a new world.

For if we are willing God is able and if we are ready God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us. Amen

Sunday, January 30th 2022

“Beloved but not Better than” Reflections by the Rev. Joe Summers given at The Episcopal Church of the Incarnation

Readings for the 4th Sun. Aft. Epiph-C: Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, I Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-30

Because the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth have been used to justify almost every form of domination and harm in our culture, it can sometimes leave you feeling embarrassed, or even ashamed, to publicly acknowledge taking the teachings and practices of Jesus seriously. But for me the genius you find in Jesus thinking about things like spirituality, morality, truth, ethics, justice, and strategies for living them, when compared to so many spiritual and religious thinkers, is like comparing Shakespeare to pulp fiction writers. They may be easier to understand, they may get some of the key points right, but they miss so many of the nuances and complexities. Thus for me it is worth all people of good will, people of every faith or no faith, to try to understand Jesus’ teachings.

This is partly because Jesus taught a way of approaching truth in terms of paradox, that is by embracing opposite truths. Wrestling with opposite truths deprives you of the certainty that so many confuse with faith. It makes doubt an important part of the life of faith. It makes you live not in some abstract theoretical world, where all the good is on one side and the bad is one the other and you just have to choose the good and reject the bad, but rather in the world as it is: a world where we are continually confronted with competing goods, a world where we have to figure out how much of ourselves to give to one good or another, a world where even when we are doing our best to choose the good we discover it often has harmful consequences. Whatever we believe, or don’t believe, about Jesus his teachings are always challenging. Wrestling with them can not only help us to challenge the way they have been corrupted into justifying domination and oppression, but they can also help us to address the most fundamental questions of truth and what it means to be truly human. Christians who wrestle with them often find they challenge much of what they thought Christianity was about, which is perhaps why the church often avoids doing this.

This brings us to our gospel today which is the second part of the story we began last week about Jesus’ first sermon in his home town of Nazareth.

Jesus had apparently been building up quite a reputation in the surrounding area when he comes to his home church and says: “You are God’s beloved and the year of the Lord, God’s time, is now, the time of liberation is now.” And people are like “right on brother… Hallelujah.” But then he has to ruin it by going on to say, “but don’t think this means you are better than anyone else, just because you are God’s beloved doesn’t make you any better than anyone else.” What?

And then Jesus does that nasty thing of backing up what he’s saying with the Bible. Who did God send the prophet Elijah to help in the time of famine? Who did God send the prophet Elisha to heal? It wasn’t one of us. It was one of those folks who we look down upon, or often even see as our enemies: a widow of Zarephath in Sidon, Naaman the Syrian.” And suddenly, all those good feelings turned ugly quickly, people were outraged.

We love to feel superior to others. It is so comforting. It almost seems coded into our DNA. Isn’t having a sense of yourself almost synonymous with feeling different than, better than, others? Isn’t being a certain faith about feeling your way is better than others? Doesn’t believing in truth and justice make you better than others? Isn’t that why God especially loves us and watches out for us? To which Jesus says: “Absolutely not. You are God’s beloved, but you are no better than others. In fact, God loves both the just and the unjust.”

That’s a troubling idea. As some of my fellow seminarians said upon hearing this —"if there is no special reward for being good—then why be good?” It also raises the question, if God loves others just like God loves us, doesn’t that mean that the bad things that happen to others may happen to us?

Jesus will reinforce this message in so many different ways throughout his ministry:

*You think you are better than those religious nationalists, the Zealots, who Pilate massacred at the Temple. You are no better than them. You may end up sharing their same fate. In fact, some of Jesus disciples had been Zealots.

*You think you are better than Roman collaborators like tax collectors? In front of everyone, who came out to greet him, Jesus says to Zacchaeus the tax collector, “Zacchaeus come down from that tree and welcome me into your home.” Asking to be invited into someone’s home is not how you distance yourself from them. Some of Jesus closest disciples had been tax collectors.

*Jesus says you think that you are more pure than those who are considered ritually impure, like the poor, the handicapped, the ill, menstruating women, tax collectors, women who live by selling their bodies, they are going to get into heaven before you.

*The Samaritan woman who had six husbands and was now living with another man had to go out to the well in the heat of the day because she was so despised, but she’s held up as the first Gentile to bring Jesus’ good news to others.

*The mob is willing to kill a woman they caught in adultery as collateral damage for being able to get to Jesus. Jesus immobilizes them by boldly challenging their self-righteousness—"who among you has not sinned?”

*One of the Pharisee’s is judging Jesus for letting a woman, who has had to live by selling her body, bath his feet with tears and kisses. Jesus’s challenges his judgement of the woman:

“ while you stood back in judgement she poured out her love on me. The more one knows oneself as forgiven the more one knows the love of God.”

*Again and again, Jesus points out how often it is those who don’t share our faith who are the ones in and through whom the Spirit is working: the Samaritan who helps the man beaten and robbed and left by the side of the road, the hemorrhaging Syrophoenician woman who breaks the taboos by touching Jesus, all those folks who returned to give thanks when others didn’t.

But Jesus goes even further. Not only are you not to view others as less than you, you are to risk your own reputation for their sake. In a society where women were to stay home and not interact with men who weren’t their husbands or family members and women who did mix with other men were considered immoral—those traveling with Jesus including a group of women—all risking their reputations for the good news.

Jesus challenges us to reach out to and embrace those we have been programmed to reject. In a time when eating together was viewed as a kind of communion through which, if you broke bread with someone who was considered impure their impurity would contaminate you, those embracing the way of Jesus broke bread with everyone. In fact, this is part of why John’s gospel insists that you will not be able to be part of the reign of the beloved, except through breaking bread with others in this way.

If Jesus models the way, it is important to notice how at a time when you were viewed as becoming like whoever you touched, not only does Jesus not retreat in disgust from those who were viewed as impure, he reaches out and touches them in all sorts of ways: touching, blessing, loving those who were seen to be sources of contamination. It as if when we feel that instinctual sense of revulsion about someone, that dualism helps to foster in us and that makes us want to distance ourselves from them and see ourselves as superior to them, Jesus is inviting us to move in a directly opposite direction, a direction of drawing closer to them with empathy, curiosity, and the love that Martin Luther King defined as “understanding, creative, redemptive, good will for all.”

Simon Weil believed that justice can only happen if we recognize the fundamental equality and identity of all people. Otherwise, our perception of justice will be so distorted we will never get there. But she also said that to try to get our minds to be willing to embrace those who disgust us is like trying to get a dog, with no prior training, to walk into a fire and allow itself to be burned to death.* While that may be hyperbole, it testifies to how much this struggle for the beloved community is not just about the powers that be, out there in the night trying to murder the dream, it’s also about how we live our daily lives, how we have to struggle to overcome the ways various systems of oppression now live in us and why we are needing to be re-born if we are going to be part of the new creation in which all are loved and treated with dignity.

The Jesus’ revolution that we see in the early church was not just about beliefs and values, it was about tearing down the gates that keep people trapped in hell through engaging in practices like seeking to understand others, learning to talk their language, forgiving people, feeding the hungry even at your own expense, caring for the sick-even at the risk of your own life, ministering to the dying—even when they were people that you never knew before. In other words, it was about making your life a liturgy. The word liturgy originally meant a public work done at a private cost. This was, for example, the way roads were often built at the time. You either had to help build them yourself or pay someone to do it for you. Making your life a liturgy is about doing things for the good of all at a private cost. And this work begins with the death of letting go of viewing yourself as separate from and superior to others.

Just as Matthew’s gospel told us about how the powers reacted to the news of the birth of Jesus, Luke now helps us understand that it wasn’t just the powers that so often responded negatively to Jesus and his message, it was also often ordinary people like you and me. Luke is challenging us today to identify with their reaction because so often them is us. If your first reaction to this story was to feel superior to Jesus’ home town crowd-you are not alone.

But Luke’s story doesn’t end there. It says that though the people of his hometown drove Jesus out of Nazareth and led him to the brow of a hill on which it stood, so that they might hurl him off the cliff, Jesus passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

This is an important image partly because we hear this wasn’t a one-time thing. Jesus seems to have been able not only to provoke people, by bringing to the surface ideas and feeling they didn’t want to face in such a way that it made them want to kill him, but he was also able to speak and act in ways that kept them from being able to do it. We see it in this confrontation today, we see it when various groups came to trap Jesus in a way that will lead him to either be killed by the authorities, or be rejected by the people. We see it in the way Jesus calmly confronted that mob who was ready to murder him and that woman in the gospel of John.

In addition to Jesus’ extraordinary ability to bring to the surface realities that can’t be changed unless they were faced, Jesus clearly had a power and authority that calmed the stormy seas of human emotions. And this too is a paradox that I think is mean to challenge us: the power to provoke going hand in hand with the power to calm. I think it’s a power we hear the prophet Jeremiah speak of today as the power of God, that he says was put into his mouth even as a young man-- to exercise authority “over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant." I think it’s the power of the Spirit that Paul calls the kind of love which: “does not insist on its own way; is not irritable or resentful; does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth and bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” You combine that Spirit with a commitment to real change and the status quo is going to change.

When we were children, we spoke like children, we thought like children, we reasoned like children; but it’s now time for us to put an end to childish ways, including the idea that we are superior or special in a way that others aren’t, or by letting ourselves be controlled by our desire to look good in the eyes of others.

Now we see as through a dark glass, then we shall see face to face. Now we know only in part; then we shall know and love fully, even as we have been fully known and loved, fully known and loved as beloved even with all the garbage that’s part of who we are. So faith, hope, and love abide; but the greatest of these is love.

And if we are willing God is able, and if we are ready, God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us. Amen

*Quoted from “An Endless Seeing” Jacqueline Rose’s review of The Subversive Simone Weil by Robert Zaretsky found in the January 13th, 2022 issue of The New York Review of Books.)