Sermon - 7th Sunday After Epiphany (2/24/2019)
Gen. 45:3-11, 15; Ps. 37:1-11, 39-40; 1 Cor. 15:35-38, 42-50; Lk. 6:27-38
“Love your enemies,” Jesus says, “do good to those who hate you.” There are few things that Jesus tells his followers to do that are more difficult, more contrary to our instincts as human beings, than loving our enemies. Even if, in theory, we know that holding a grudge doesn’t really help us feel better when the time has come to move on, if you have ever really been hurt by another person – and to one degree or another, that’s all of us – well, the reality is, it’s often more complicated than that.
To really get at the complexities, though, we need some stories, some actual examples. Let’s start with a relatively recent story that we all remember well. In June 2015, at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, nine people were shot to death at Bible study by a young white man who wanted to start a war between the races. By a Lutheran, as a matter of fact – a member of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Columbia, South Carolina. And you probably remember how, not even 48 hours after the murders, some of the family members of those who had been killed were in court telling the murderer that they forgave him. There was one woman by the name of Nadine Collier, who lost her mother, who said in the courtroom: “You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to [my mother] ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you and have mercy on your soul.”
I remember, at the time, there was a lot of commentary about how many of the family members of the Charleston victims expressed forgiveness to the killer of their loved ones. How this was an amazing demonstration of the Christian teaching to love our enemies, and do good to those who hate us. But, I also remember at the time, there were some people, including some Christians, who said that maybe we should not be so quick to forgive – especially someone who has not expressed remorse, who has not even begun to attempt to repair the harm that he caused (if that’s even possible), who has not yet even asked for forgiveness from the people he hurt.
I wanted to be sure that I remembered this right, so I went back and checked and found an op-ed in the New York Times by a writer named Roxane Gay. She did not personally know any of the people involved at Charleston, and she wrote, “I deeply respect the families of the nine slain who are able to forgive this terrorist and his murderous racism. I cannot fathom how they are capable of such eloquent mercy, such grace under such duress.”
But she did not think that she herself, as a human being, and as an African-American, could ever forgive this crime. In her view, a crime like this does not come out of nowhere, but happens in a society where relationships and human community are already broken in some way. And it’s so unsettling to think that we live in a society like that, so disturbing to think that maybe we have some ability to change that atmosphere – when we hear words of forgiveness, we quickly feel absolved of any responsibility to actually do something as a result of this act. Maybe if we allowed ourselves to be disquieted for a little bit longer, if we weren’t so quick to move on, we could do something that could prevent future atrocities, large and small. And I think she may well have had a point.
Here’s another story, a much older story, from which we read a small part in the Scripture reading today. You probably remember the story. Joseph is one of the 12 sons of Jacob, also known as Israel. Jacob is the grandson of Abraham and his 12 sons become the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel. Now Joseph was his daddy’s favorite, and his brothers are deeply jealous of him. So one day they all conspire to sell their brother Joseph into slavery. Which is about as horrible a way to treat your brother as anyone can imagine.
Joseph is sold on into Egypt, and through various adventures eventually becomes the prime minister of Egypt, because he foresees that after seven years of plenty there will be seven years of famine. Joseph orders all the farmers to turn over 20% of their harvest every year to the Egyptian government, which I’m sure made him a very popular politician, at least after the famine came, because then Joseph had enough reserves to make sure everyone had food.
Jacob and his remaining 11 sons are meanwhile back in Canaan and are hungry in the famine, so they come to Egypt hoping to buy food. They do not even recognize that this Egyptian dude who’s selling food is in fact their long-lost brother Joseph, but Joseph knows who they are. And Joseph plays for time, speaking to them through an interpreter, testing them in various ways, trying to figure things out.
And eventually Joseph decides to call for them, and says to them: I am your brother, Joseph. Their reaction is stunned silence. Which is understandable – this person who they know has the power of life and death over them turns out to be someone who by all rights should hate them. I wouldn’t know what to say either.
Then Joseph speaks again. What you intended for me, Joseph said, was evil. No question about it. But, look, if you hadn’t done it, I would not be in a position to save our whole family from starvation. So God has brought something good out of your evil deeds. I prefer to think less about what you did to me and to think instead about the goodness of God.
Notice a couple things about this story. First, it is Joseph who says to his brothers that God brought good out of the evil that they did to him. His brothers do not say this to Joseph. His brothers do not say, “I know we sold you into slavery and told our father you were dead. Oops, our bad. But it looks like God took care of you, so we’re all good, right?” No, it doesn’t work that way. Only the one who is harmed has the right to say, I have decided that I no longer wish the past had been different. The one who did the harm has no such right. And no one can tell Joseph that he must forgive his brothers. He can only forgive if he chooses to forgive.
Second, when Joseph says these things to his brothers, Joseph is already safe. His brothers cannot hurt him any more, and it’s absolutely crucial that Joseph is in a place of safety before he can make a free choice to forgive his brothers.
I think of how many women in abusive relationships have been counseled by their pastors to stay in those relationships, “Remember, Jesus said, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who abuse you.” I think that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what Jesus is saying. In reflecting on these readings this week, I’ve thought a lot about several instances when I was in toxic and harmful situations. I’ve thought a lot about how I put up with things no one should ever have to put up with, because I didn’t have options (or I didn’t realize that I had options). While I was stuck in these places, I may have rationalized putting up with harm by saying it was the Christian thing to do. But that wasn’t loving my enemies but rather giving in to them, because I didn’t feel like I had a choice. Only when each situation was over, and I had some perspective and distance, could I actually make a decision about what I wanted to do. To decide whether I still wanted to be angry about what had happened or whether I wanted to let go of that anger.
Getting to safety is the first step to forgiveness and love of those who harm us. We should never ask someone to forgive harm when the harm is still happening – that’s not love, that’s complicity, and it’s not what Jesus is talking about. And I think Jesus himself makes that clear towards the end of the gospel reading today. He says, “Love your enemies, do good, lend expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. This is something that God can do, because God is safe. We cannot harm God unless God allows us to. Only God can say to humans: What you did was wrong, but I will find a way to bring good out of it, to redeem it, to restore communion, to bring life out of death. That’s God’s job, and not ours. Paul wrote in Romans that “Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Jesus comes to show us, to embody for us, that God dares to love God’s enemies. And to the extent that we have faith in this God, we come to see that we are safe in the love and mercy of God, and only then will we have freedom to love others the way God loves them, the way that God loves us.
Jesus does command us to love our enemies, but – to put it in Lutheran language – this command is not just the law, it’s the gospel. He is not telling us: Be doormats, let people walk all over you, carry your cross, or else God will be very angry with you. No. He is telling us good news: That God loves everyone, even the unloveable, even you and even me, even when we do not love as we ought. My prayer today is that we may all have faith to truly believe, to truly know that God’s love for us in Christ is unconditional and unchanging. And for that reason – and only for that reason – we may discover that in fact we are safe in the loving embrace of our God. And so, we have the freedom to choose not to wish the past had been different, to choose to love and be merciful, as God loves and is merciful to us.