022022 Epiphany 7 The Cost of Enemy Love

The sermon begins at minute 19:00 of the video

Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42; Genesis 45:3-11, 15; Luke 6:27-38

     The church has a love/hate relationship with the Good News revealed in today’s texts. The only two places where Jesus explicitly says, Love your enemies appear in Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of the sermon on the Mount or the Plain. Despite the fact that the phrase only appears twice, it is a core teaching of Jesus that appears in other forms throughout the Gospel. It’s a recipe for deconstructing the little bundle of lies about myself and my society that came into existence the moment my tribe and I found somebody to hate.

       Yet these two texts are assigned to the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany. You know that the date of Easter varies from the end of March to the end of April. Lent is always 40 days, and Christmas always occurs on Dec. 25. So the only wiggle room is Epiphany, which can have anywhere from 4 to 8 Sundays. In the 44 years since I was ordained, Epiphany has included a seventh Sunday about 8 times. That means the lectionary has only given me 8 opportunities to preach about loving our enemies. I’ve managed to sneak in a few more, but it speaks volumes when the church assigns such an important text to be heard so infrequently.

       Why would the church be so intent on avoiding this teaching? Well, whenever I mention enemy love to people, they give me  a variety of reasons for not being able or willing to love their enemies. I think that’s part of it. Most people just say it’s too hard – they could never do that. Others say that the people we call enemies are bad people and so deserve enemy status. Still others believe that it’s just wrong – it runs counter to what the world order needs to function well. A favorite approach of Christians is to soften its meaning by reinterpreting it. These thoughts and feelings are some of the reasons the church has not emphasized it more.

     It’s true we need to be careful about our interpretation. It can be and has been used very inappropriately in a patriarchal culture to tell women to love their abusing husbands, and in situations of slavery to tell slaves to love their oppressive masters. And it has been used as an excuse for victims to avoid standing up to bullies. Jesus is NOT telling us to be doormats; to passively accept abuse. Instead, he is teaching both victims and bullies one way to non-violently resist and avoid abuse.

       In Jesus’ time, those who struck someone on their cheek or took away their coat were masters or soldiers. Striking the cheek was the way a master disciplined a slave or servant; the way he asserted his authority. In Jesus’ time there was a proper way to do this. The slave would stand facing the master, who would strike the right cheek with the back of his right hand. Because this was the proper way to strike the cheek, doing it any other way would be a loss of face. So if, after having been struck on the right cheek, the slave stands there and offers the left cheek, he is showing nonviolent resistance. It’s awkward to strike the left cheek with the back of the right hand. The master cannot discipline in the accepted fashion; he is shamed and dishonored. The slave has exposed the reality that master and slave are not in right relationship.

       Similarly, not just anyone would take away your coat. Typically, a soldier would take your coat as a form of extortion. Giving away your shirt would leave you naked. You might be embarrassed. But again, what is really being exposed here is the injustice. Giving your shirt as well as your coat, exposes the injustice of having your coat taken in the first place. (Bruce J. Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on … The Synoptic Gospels)

       None of this makes loving our enemy easy. Usually loving our enemy is so beyond what we can imagine ourselves doing. That’s why I love reading stories and watching movies and plays that show complex and surprising examples of people loving those who have hurt them. It makes it feel possible. So, even though the lectionary may be wrong to assign enemy love to Epiphany 7, it’s right to connect the Joseph story to this Gospel.

       For those who don’t know or can’t remember Joseph’s story, let’s remember what happened before today’s passage. Joseph was left for dead by his brothers because he was a tattle-tale and a braggart, inexplicably his father’s favorite, and naïve about how all this looked to his brothers. He ended up in prison in Egypt, but eventually rose to power. Then there was a famine in much of the Middle East, so Jacob (Israel) sent ten of his sons to buy grain. He kept Benjamin, son of his first wife and full brother of Joseph, at home. When the brothers sought to buy grain from Joseph, they didn’t recognize him, but he recognized them. He longed to see his brother, Benjamin, so he designed a series of false accusations to get them to bring his brother. When Judah pleaded with Joseph not to keep Benjamin because Jacob would die if Benjamin failed to return home, Joseph broke down and revealed himself to his brothers. This is where today’s reading begins.

       Of course, his brothers are half scared out of their skulls. With a snap of his fingers Joseph could no doubt order the beheading of all of them. And who could blame him? For sure the heartless men who schemed to murder (but then coldly sold him off instead) would likely have reached for that nuclear option were the roles reversed. What the brothers did to Joseph was not just “meant for evil.”  It was evil – wicked, sinful, and wrong. Period.  There can be no easy dismissal of these facts, no swift evacuation of blame for the perpetrators just because perhaps in retrospect one can see God managed to bring something good anyway. Enemy love does not blithely “fix” the world order.

       We cannot let this weekend pass without referring to the Japanese Interment, whose anniversary was yesterday. Reparations and apologies are absolutely necessary – for the Japanese, and for all the other groups this country mistreated along the way. Yet, even though they are necessary, they will not bring complete healing. There will always be mistrust. That is part of the complexity of forgiveness and enemy love. Even when they feel impossible and confusing, they must be done, though doing them may not remove the scar left by the mistreatment.

       Likewise, the victim who forgives doesn’t have to be perfect to bring healing. Joseph wasn’t a paragon of virtue. People who make him such are the same ones who use Jesus’ divinity as an excuse to make following him impossible. How many times have you heard, or said, “Of course Jesus could do that. He was God!” No wonder people prefer to worship Jesus than to follow him! These stories are only useful to the extent that we find ourselves in them. If Joseph’s young braggadocio isn’t enough, surely his manipulation of his brothers in their initial visits tilts his halo and dulls his shine. Like us, initially he wanted revenge. Before Joseph wept on their necks, he played on their fears and exploited his imperial power over them. Yes, they were his brothers, but that just made it more complex. The power to forgive must always be in the hands of the one who has been wronged; so it’s right for Joseph to forgive the wrongs done to him by his brothers.

       But forgiveness tainted with revenge never quite accomplishes its purpose. Even at the end of Joseph’s story, the brothers lie to him because they still can’t trust him after his initial manipulation. It is said that revenge is a dish best served cold. But, hot or cold, it muddies the water, clouds hopes, and makes community hard to achieve.

       The Scriptures know that we aren’t going to be perfect. Maturity means growing and engaging the complexity and imperfection of our tainted righteousness. The Psalmist starts out saying, “Do not fret yourselves because of evildoers” because that is what humans do. Jesus says, “I say to you that listen” because he knows that a big part of us resists listening, especially when it comes to loving and forgiving enemies. And Joseph’s story shows that, even though we never quite get it right, and we rarely start out with forgiveness and love, history goes on, and healing happens.

       The invitation is always there. And the standard is never lowered. Revenge never ends well; but we don’t want to face that truth. Victims often confuse justice with revenge when they call a jury’s punishment “finally getting justice.” We’re not surprised by that statement because we feel it ourselves. But we are inspired to greater things when we hear stories about people who forgive the bully, work to restore that person’s life, and heal the wound that leads bullies to attack. So, seek out those stories; meditate on them; let them soak deeply in your being; pay more attention to them than to stories of revenge. Slowly but surely we may find ourselves forgiving and loving enemies a little more.