St. Michael and All Angels, Albuquerque
The Rev. Carolyn W. Metzler
Lev. 9:1-2, 9-18; Ps. 119:33-40; 1 Cor. 3:10-11, 16-23; Matt. 5:38-48
A wee story: “I sat there in awe as the old monk answered our questions. Though I'm usually shy, I felt so comfortable in his presence that I found myself raising my hand. “Father, could you tell us something about yourself?” He leaned back. “Myself?” he mused. There was a long pause. “My name...used to be....Me. But now.....it's You.” Remember that. It's where this is going.
For three weeks we've been sitting on the Galilean plain listening to Jesus deliver his Sermon on the Mount. In Biblese, the mountain is always the place of revelation; of divine speech, of transfiguration. The desert is always the place of suffering, temptation, of exile and formation. Sacred landscape is never extraneous to the story. In this sermon as brought to us by Matthew, Jesus is delivering his agenda for the Kingdom. He is at the beginning of his ministry. Curious crowds have followed him here. His disciples have been chosen. Present also are those he has healed and forgiven. This is his opening speech; his sneak preview for what they can expect henceforth. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he begins, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world. I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill the law. You have heard it said you shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not swear falsely, but I say to you what happens to you on the inside is as real as what happens on the outside. If you are leaving your gift at the altar and remember someone has something against you, leave your gift, go and be reconciled, and then come offer your gift. You have heard it said 'an eye for an eye.' But I say to you, turn the other cheek. Go the second mile. You have heard it said 'Love your neighbors.' But I say 'Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.' Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” You can imagine the people at the bottom of the hill shaking their heads in amazement. “We have never heard anything like this before!” And neither have we. This is certainly not the world WE live in. In our merit-based, litigious, tit-for-tat world where blockbuster movies are about retaliation and the news is full of revenge stories, we have to wonder: are Jesus' words here fanciful idealism, or could they have a real place in human society?
Jesus' world wasn't much different from our own, also ruled by “I'm gonna getcha back, don't you worry!” In fact, the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” imperative was a law limiting retaliation. It wasn't saying “you must extract an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” It was saying “You can ONLY extract one eye for one eye, one tooth for one tooth.” You cannot be harmed a little bit and respond with the nuclear option.
We are called neither to be punching bags nor to become that which we despise. That is the stupidity of the Death Penalty. “Why do we kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong?” When I walked with Andy Smith to his execution in 1998, he stood proud and free, even bound in irons and chains. He spoke forgiveness to his executioners. They—the ones with the keys and the needles were only ones who could not join him singing “Amazing Grace.” They were the ones demeaned by this hideous process some call “justice.” When we retaliate; when we hold resentments and righteous indignation; when we exult at the downfall of another we become the same as what we despise. No, says Jesus. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Come higher.
In preparing this sermon I became uncomfortably aware how easily I might preach on these words as a person of privilege and means in the United States. I cannot think of a single person who might be labeled my “enemy,” poised to bring me down in any way. I do not have anyone pointing missiles at my home, or gassing my children, or poisoning my well. I have not had scores of my family wiped out by the opposition. How differently might these words be heard today in Syria, or in South Sudan? When people's lives are torn apart by capricious violence—the stray bullet, the willful bomb, how do we understand Jesus' words? The history of non-violent resistance always struggles with this. When the heart is broken wide open by suffering and sorrow, how do we do love our enemy?
In my work against the Death Penalty I came to know a woman who has stood in that fire. Her son was brutally murdered. The killer was caught and brought to trial. Julia did not seek the death penalty, and the system punished her for it, making everything as difficult for her as possible, not showing her the courtesy they showed to others demanding the death penalty. She suffered terribly with her rage and incomprehension at the loss of her only son and with the brutality of the system. A few years later she felt compelled to meet his killer. The prison would not let her in. She tried everything to get in and the entry remained shut to her. In exasperation, she threatened to call the news networks if they didn't let her in. When the ABC and CBS helicopters landed on her front lawn, the phone rang. It was the Warden. She could come in. She met with her son's killer, told him about her boy, and how devastating his death was to her. The remorseful man wept with her. She started to visit more regularly. Over the years, they became close. When he was executed she wanted to be with him. Again the prison barred her way. They finally said she could come in if she submitted to a complete body orifice check. She submitted and pushed the demoralizing behavior onto the guards, as such actions actually debased them, not her. When the man was executed, she stood by prayerfully not as a vengeful witness but as his mother and friend. She said to me later “He took my son from me, so he became my son.” When she said that, I swear I saw Christ standing beside her. This was Living Gospel.
Love, as demonstrated in Julia and Jesus is not sentimental and sappy, worthy of Hallmark cards. This love is gutsy, truly vulnerable, creative, humble and the most powerful force in all Creation. It is not for the faint of heart. It demands real engagement, deep humility, outrageous courage, and profound prayer. This is the only kind of love which will save and transform the world. To abandon that love as idealistic is to allow ourselves to be distorted by bitterness, twisted by enmity. Hatred deforms the soul. This planet cannot withstand either people or nations so poisoned. If we don't learn the way of love we will most certainly destroy ourselves.
The whole Sermon on the Mount is our instruction manual for the last line from today's Gospel: “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Immediately all of us Ones on the Enneagram who are so taken with perfection go “See? See? I'm right! Jesus said so!” Except--perfection is NOT what Jesus is talking about. To be perfect in the way Jesus means, is to empty ourselves of our self-righteousness and release our controlling agendas which bend others to our will. We cannot love anyone, especially not those who persecute us if we are in love with our own power. Jesus' words are an invitation to the kind of holiness which is characteristic of people whose lives belong to God, not to their own importance. I don't mean “holier than thou,” or people who can do no wrong. That's perfectionism. Jesus invites us to the kind of holiness where, as we read last week, we “have the mind of Christ.” This is what God is like! Going back to Leviticus, God says to care for the poor, provide for the hungry, and punctuates this over and over with “I am the Lord!” God's very identity is compassion. The Lord is the One who so loves us that God wants to pass on to us who God is. Love your neighbor as yourself! All your neighbors! ALL of them. Be holy in mercy, as I am Holy! And if you want to know what love looks like in real life, just watch Jesus!
This is a good reminder for us to also consider who is NOT our enemy. Leviticus is clear. The poor are not the enemy, though when we cut billions of dollars in food stamps we treat them as such. The hungry are not the enemy. The immigrant is not the enemy. The homeless are not the enemy. The disabled are not the enemy. People who look differently, act differently, love differently, have different politics, are not the enemy.
All right then! Who IS the enemy? I wish the architects of our Lectionary had chosen a different Psalm for today, like 38: “Those who seek after my life lay snares for me; those who strive to hurt me speak of my ruin and plot treachery all the day long!” Or 55: “I am shaken by the noise of the enemy and by the pressure of the wicked; they have cast an evil spell upon me and are set against me in fury.” Or 79: “O God, the heathen have given the bodies of your servants as food for the birds of the air, and the flesh of your faithful ones to the beasts of the field. They have shed blood like water on every side of Jerusalem, and there was no one to bury them.” There are so many like this. I call them “the persecution psalms.” But there are people who do have people plotting against them. Recent news images from the Ukraine, from Syria, from Sudan and such places are clear: there are people in constant mortal danger and face real evil daily. I can pray these psalms in intercession for them.
But if I don't have enemies behind every bush, I know I do have those enemies within myself that would keep me from deep prayer and the invitation to holiness which is always before me. My anger, resentment, jealousies, my complacency with evil, my selfishness—all these are enemies who would do me as much harm as a terrorist with a car bomb. Sometimes the enemies are outside us. And sometimes they are within. In the immortal words of Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Then there are those who really do get under our skin—the fellow vestry-person who always disagrees with everything we say; the in-law who puts us down every chance that comes along; the boss who can only criticize; the doctor who will not listen to us; the colleague who steals our ideas for her own glory; the neighbor who does everything possible to irritate us. That's as close as most of us get to real external enemies in this culture of privilege. How are we to love these people? The Dalai Lama calls these people “our teachers in love.” They invite us to dig deeply to find the commonality between us, to find the good in the other; to find and name where we ourselves are part of the problem. Be clear: We are not to be impassive doormats. We need to learn to stand in our identities in God, to speak our truth in love and refrain from hurling back an insult, or being smug over their failure. That is not the way of love. These are our opportunities to contextualize Jesus' command to love our enemy and pray for those who persecute us. This is how we practice love. And as we do so, we may just find that not only are we ourselves transformed by this holiness of God, but that the person with whom we struggle is also transformed. Not always, but often enough to make you stand slack-jawed in awe.
Many years ago there was a person that I couldn't bear to be in my life. It is arguable that I hated this person. Why doesn't matter. I was AWFUL and knew it. I was ashamed but couldn't fix it. Something had to change. I spoke it in Confession. I took last week's Gospel seriously and forbad myself from receiving communion. I wrote her and asked her forgiveness. And I began to pray for her. You know, you really can't hate a person and pray for them at the same time. I began to change. I worked at developing a relationship, as did she. Today she is my most cherished and beloved step-mother, a title I revere and cherish. Only love and grace can transform us.
When we love those who antagonize us we begin to build a holy connection. Love is the bridge with those who have power over us. Love begins with the acknowledgment that we are all of the Image of God, even those who Mother Teresa called “Christ in a disturbing guise.” When we love those who we deem unloveable we break open our own hearts as Christ did on the cross, still loving those who tortured and executed him. It is worth mentioning that the next story in the Gospel is Jesus teaching the disciples to pray. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” They are always connected We all stand before the throne of mercy and grace every day of our lives. It is there that we learn the humility which allows us to reach out to those we would despise and extend God's blessing. It occurs to me that in loving our enemies we actually expand our community—enlarge our world, push out the boundaries of our circles. This is what God does with us. This is what it means to be perfect: to live in the mind of Christ, in the very heart of God. When we see the bonds of love which connects every human being, we know that the distance between us breaks down. What is suffered by one is suffered by the whole. What is imprisoning to one is binding to all. To practice—even imperfectly—this profound connectedness is what it means to live in Christian community. And so we have come full circle.
I sat there in awe as the old monk answered our questions. Though I'm usually shy, I felt so comfortable in his presence that I found myself raising my hand. “Father, could you tell us something about yourself?”
He leaned back. “Myself?” he mused. There was a long pause. “My name...used to be....Me. But now.....it's You.”
Story from Tales of a Magic Monastery by Theophane the Monk. p. 18