We Have Enemies, And So, We Pray: a sermon for Epiphany 7A on Matthew 5:38-48

NowSince I was thirteen years old, I have borne the mark of my enemy. It’s faded quite a bit over the years, but if I look carefully I can still make out the marks left behind by, let’s call her, Betty Cherie’s teeth.  Way back in the eighth grade Betty Cherie and I fell afoul of one another. I don’t really remember what it was that started the whole thing.  It was one of those grudges that only thirteen-year-old girls can hold onto with any kind of tenacity. All I can remember is that Betty Cherie and I hated each other and the whole school knew it.

One afternoon our rivalry reached the point of war. I still cringe when I remember it. After all I was thirteen and I should have known better. I’d like to say that she started it. But, I honestly don’t remember how we got ourselves to the point were we were to meet each other in the playground to fight it out. Our adolescent duel took place in full view of the student body. We met at high noon, out behind the portables, out of sight from the teachers. It began with two sworn enemies pushing each other around. There was some hair pulling, I think I even got in a punch or two before she bit me.

I was so shocked that someone would actually sink her teeth into my flesh that I just stood there staring at the blood as it oozed out of my wrist. I wasn’t the only one who was shocked.  My allies shouted in disbelief:  Betty Cherie had rabies and someone had better suck the poison out or I was done for.

Well Betty Cherie did not have rabies. I survived. But for the rest of that year, Betty Cherie and I were sworn enemies. I hated her with all the youthful passion I could muster. I remember wishing she was dead. I spoke ill of her whenever and wherever I had the opportunity. I took delight in every misfortune that came her way. I have never in all my life loathed anyone as much as I loathed Betty Cherie. Even though our lives took us in different directions, I carried the memory of Betty with me. Whenever somebody mentioned the word enemy, Betty Cherie would come to mind. Sometimes when I would wonder what ever became of her, I would find comfort in the sure and certain knowledge that justice would have prevailed and Cherie would have gotten her just reward. I imagined all sorts of misfortune befalling her.

Years later, after I had finished my first year at Seminary, I went home to Vancouver to work for the summer. That summer, I worked as an accountant during the week and some Sundays I worked as a supply preacher. I traveled from church to church learning my craft. It was a terrifying way to spend the summer. Mew churches to become aquatinted with and strangers, who I feared must be sitting in judgment of this new preacher who didn’t have a clue what she was doing. One Sunday after I had finished preaching a decidedly mediocre sermon, I noticed that one of the women in the choir was staring at me. From the look on her face, I figured she must have been so confused by my feeble attempts at proclaiming the gospel that she just couldn’t believe that I was for real. It was more than a little unnerving when after the offering I realized that this woman was still staring at me. I resolved not to look her way until after the service was over. But when I was standing in the narthex greeting people as they made their way to the door, I came face to face with the woman from the choir and sure enough, you guessed it:  Betty Cherie extended her hand for me to shake.

As I stuck out my own hand, I looked down at the faded teeth marks on my wrist and prayed that after all these years, she wouldn’t give me away to what was left of the congregation. Cherie just smiled and asked me how I’ve been. I muttered something about life being good to me. We exchanged some pleasantries and then she was gone. Before I left that church I did a little digging and it seems that the dreaded Cherie had done well for herself. It’s Dr. Cherie now.  She’s a very successful veterinarian. Two lovely children and a apparently husband to die for. Well, I have to tell you I spent most of the ride home wondering why on earth God would shower so many blessings upon such a loathsome creature like Betty Cherie. Where was the justice in that? Shortly after my ordination, I received a card in the mail. The postmark was North Vancouver, but there was no return address. Inside the greeting read: “Dawn.  Congratulations on your ordination. The peace of the Lord be with you always. Your friendly old foe Cherie.”

Sometimes we can learn to love an enemy from our childhood. A childhood nemesis can often be transformed into the stuff from which wisdom is earned. Not all of our enemies become faded memories so easily. Some struggles don’t end with the passage of time. When I think about the people who have been described as our enemies; people like Osama bin Laden and the members of Al Qaeda or the Taliban; terrorists who seek to do us harm, these enemies I find it more difficult to love.  So, I pray for them. I pray not to God as if God were some grand-puppeteer in the sky whose mind I want to change so that She will intervene on behalf of the Western World. I pray because as C.S. Lewis put it, “prayer changes me.” The act of prayer has the power to change me; to make me more compassionate toward my enemies and over time to help me to understand what might drive them to seek to do me harm. Motivated by that compassion, prayer can move us to learn to love our enemies by working for peace, so that all our lives can be better.

So, when I hear Jesus say, love your enemies, I can see some hope for learning to love the likes of Betty Cherie or even the odd terrorist. But there are other enemies that are more immediate that I find more difficult to learn to love. The wounds these enemies have inflicted and continue to inflict have not healed and so I have very little interest in learning to love these particular enemies. These enemies would probably be surprised to hear me describe them as such. Some of them are colleagues; most of them are good church folk like your good selves. Each and every one of them believe in their heart of hearts that their actions and attitude toward me are absolutely appropriate and blessed by God. Indeed, if pressed, I’m convinced that these enemies would insist that God is actually on their side.

I have absolutely no doubt that the best of these enemies simply wish that I, and all those like me would simply go away. The worst of these enemies wish that God would simply get on with it and punish me already, so that I would learn the error of my ways and start behaving exactly the way they want me to behave.

I try to tell myself that these enemies are not really bad people, they are just people who believe that they need to fight to ensure that the church stays exactly they way they believe the church should be and so they are doing all that they can do to hold the church to their standards, while I, and others like me have a different vision for the church. We’d like to move the church into this century. And so, while some of us do everything we can to move the church into the world, others do everything they can to hold the church where it is. While some of us struggle to change the rules, others of us struggle to maintain the rules. All the while, each of us struggle to accomplish what we believe God is calling us to do and to be. So while I pray for change to come soon, my enemies pray that the church will hold fast.

I know that there are some who would say that describing people that we disagree with as enemies is a bit harsh and maybe they are right. But when we are wounded over and over again the perpetrators of those wounds must be seen as enemies otherwise we become our own enemy; setting ourselves up for pain; and a kind of masochism takes hold of us that turns us into willing victims. When we can name our abusers as our enemies, we can begin the difficult task of learning to love our enemies. So, when I go to meetings and colleagues move away or shun me; when I gather up my courage to go to conventions where people say all manner of evil things about me and my kind; I try to see these good church folk for exactly what they are: good folk who wish me ill and who are therefore my enemies; enemies who Jesus commands me to love. Fortunately, Jesus never said that I have to learn to like these folks. But I must learn to love them.  And so, I pray.

I pray for all that I am worth. I pray not to some god who is a grand-puppeteer in the sky hoping to change Her mind so that She will tap these enemies on the head and poof just like that they will begin to see things my way, so that at long last we can become friends. No, I pray, trusting that if I continue to pray, I will be changed. Trusting that if I continue to pray, I will find the wisdom to let whatever compassion is in me grow. I pray for my enemies so that I might be changed into a more worthy opponent.  And by more worthy, I hope, I mean a more gracious opponent; a gracious opponent who is capable of forgiving my enemy.  For if we are to have any hope of ever loving our enemies we must begin by forgiving them. Forgiving is difficult work. Forgiving does not come naturally to us.  Our baser instincts prompt us toward retribution and all too often our actions toward our enemies are controlled by our desire to see them punished.

Desmond Tutu, who has suffered at the hands of enemies far more challenging than any of my enemies, insists that we must give up our sugary notions of the difficult work of forgiving, if we are ever to learn to love our enemies.  Tutu put it this way:  “Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones is not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.”

Tutu’s words point to forgiveness as a task not to be entered into lightly. But a task that is necessary if we are to begin the healing that must take place in order that we might be reconciled to one another. Now, we could wait until we are healed before learning to love our enemies, but I believe that Jesus is calling us to a much more radical way of being in the world. For Jesus insists that we love our enemies. Now. Christ, and by Christ I mean the love of Jesus that lives on in us, the incarnation if you will, Christ is calling us to a radical form of resistance. Christ is calling us to love without limits. To love even those who wish us harm.

And so, we pray. We pray not to a grand-puppeteer in the sky, hoping for him to intervene and change our enemies. We pray to the God who dwells among us trusting that the Spirit who lives and breathes in with and through us, will change us.  We pray in the sure and certain hope that we can be transformed and that compassion can be awakened in us. We pray seeking the compassion to love our neighbours. We pray seeking the wisdom to find ways to forgive so that we can be reconciled one to another.  This dear sisters and brothers is the work Christ is calling us to do. This is the transformation that the Spirit empowers in us, that we might become God’s compassionate children, capable of loving even our enemies so that in the world God loves, peace might break out everywhere.

This is a difficult path that we are called to walk. But we do not walk alone. Our God who is the source of all being walks with us and in us and yes even with and in our enemies. God is with us moving us to a deeper compassion, so that we can move beyond our need for the limits of the law. So that we can live as the daughters and sons of God, so that we can work together to see the beauty in one another, the beauty of all those sisters and brothers who like all of us embody God. This work to which we are called is not easy. But the rewards are many. So let us pray without ceasing. Let us pray for friend and foe alike. Let us pray with words and with deeds, trusting that in prayer the creative powers of the Spirit will work in us so that we may evolve into the embodiment of Christ. 

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