Monday, February 21, 2011

"Love your enemies," he said.

[Sermon preached Feb 20, 2011, at St. Christopher's by-the-Sea]

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Love your enemies.”

If last week was the frying pan, this week is the fire. You remember last week: If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out, that sort of stuff. This week, love your enemies. Ugh.

Can we just start by saying that loving our enemies is not an altogether straightforward proposition? Loving our enemies requires difficult work. In the first place, if I’m honest, it's a big step just to name out loud that I have enemies. Oh, sure I do - I’m not na├»ve - but who says that out loud? I'd rather just say that certain individuals and I are of differing opinions about the way things ought to be - not really enemies. Great minds think alike, but pretty good minds can still disagree, and even sometimes hurt one another without our having to be enemies. Just a misunderstanding.

It's not for nothing that facebook keeps track of your friends, with no mention of enemies. Nobody wants enemies. Enemies just happen. Like bubble gum on the bottom of your shoes, they happen. And since most of us don't want them, we try to turn them into something else. Like good friends we never talk to. Distant relatives we never visit or write. We're not at odds, we just have no real relationship. No harm, no foul, right?

But by telling us to love our enemies, Jesus is assuming that his followers will have enemies, because Jesus's followers are to preach Christ crucified, and this is judgment on the world - the same world Jesus came to save.

So that's point number one: Jesus gives us permission to have enemies. Indeed, he expects it. It's part of being a faithful follower of Christ.

Yet, but, and...

Jesus refuses to let our having the enemies he expects us to have be the end of our story. Jesus refuses to let our having the enemies he expects us to have be the end of His story:

Love your enemies, he says.

Not so that you won't have them, but so that you'll know what to do when they happen - love your enemies.

A nice thought. A pious sentiment, perhaps. But on the sun-baked, hard, cracked ground of the real world - where the rubber meets the road - what can this possibly mean?

A priest friend of mine used to say after the birthday blessings, to the ones who had just celebrated their special day, "I'm glad you were born." On the most basic level, to love another person is to say I'm glad that you were born. I’m glad that you exist. So says Jean Vanier, founder of the L'arch Community, a residential community of faith built around the lives of the physically and mentally handicapped.

I love you. I'm glad for you. I'm glad that you are.

When Jesus says love even your enemies, that's where we start.

Even to my enemy, I'm glad that you exist. But that's where things get sticky, isn't it? In what sense do we mean that? In what sense are we really glad that our enemies exist?

Not necessarily glad that we have enemies, but glad that the enemies we do have are. And not just for what we stand to get out of them one day, but glad for them, period, because God has given us one another.

An example of one thing this means: I think it changes the way Christians think about the future. When I close my eyes tight on dreamy days and imagine my future, Jesus asks me not to imagine a future without my present enemies. That is, to love my enemies is to not wish for a future in which my enemies have been eliminated. Instead, love of enemies means desiring that God would make us a part of one future. That we would share one, whole, reconciled future together.

But maybe that all sounds too obvious...too basic...I don't know. Still, we’ve all seen the other end of it, haven’t we? We’ve all looked at our lives cluttered with others who looked liked obstacles to be overcome for our future successes.

A man arrives at the gates of heaven. St. Peter asks, "Religion?" The man says, "Methodist." St. Peter looks down his list, and says, "Go to room 24, but be very quiet as you pass room 8."

Another man arrives at the gates of heaven. "Religion?" "Baptist." "Go to room 18, but be very quiet as you pass room 8."

A third man arrives at the gates. "Religion?" "Jewish." "Go to room 11, but be very quiet as you pass room 8." The man says, "I can understand there being different rooms for different religions, but why must I be quiet when I pass room 8?" St. Peter tells him, "Well the Catholics are in room 8, and they think they're the only ones here."

Now, two quick disclaimers: First, jokes by definition have to pick on someone, and we could just as easily have put ourselves, not the Catholics, in room number 8. It’s just a joke. Second, I’m not saying that everybody makes it, no matter what they believe, that it just doesn’t matter. I am saying that we all have had practice imagining futures that kill off our enemies and that leave us and God alone in a room at the end. And Jesus asks us to stop that; to pray for and work toward a future that includes even our enemies.

That's the beginning of what it means to love. Because that's what God has done for us in Christ Jesus: God in Christ Jesus has made us a part of God's future. God in Christ shares eternity, God’s future, with us. “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they do.”

So God in Christ makes us a part of God’s future; we are called to show and share that love by re-imagining our futures to include even those individuals, nations, families, persons, and peoples toward whom we aren’t instinctively inclined; even the ones who have nothing to give us - indeed, if we take Jesus’s example seriously, even when it costs us.

But who does that, really?

Enter Julio Diaz. I’m going to let Mr. Diaz tell the story of the night a mugger met him on a train, and, bizarrely, how the two of them found themselves at dinner around a table, sharing a future and maybe, just maybe, sharing a taste of the Kingdom.

[At this point you can click on the link to hear him, or read the author’s account below; in either case, the sermon picks up at the end of the purple text.]
Julio Diaz has a daily routine. Every night, the 31-year-old social worker ends his hour-long subway commute to the Bronx one stop early, just so he can eat at his favorite diner.

But one night last month, as Diaz stepped off the No. 6 train and onto a nearly empty platform, his evening took an unexpected turn.

He was walking toward the stairs when a teenage boy approached and pulled out a knife.

"He wants my money, so I just gave him my wallet and told him, 'Here you go,'" Diaz says.

As the teen began to walk away, Diaz told him, "Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you're going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm."

The would-be robber looked at his would-be victim, "like what's going on here?" Diaz says. "He asked me, 'Why are you doing this?'"

Diaz replied: "If you're willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, then I guess you must really need the money. I mean, all I wanted to do was get dinner and if you really want to join me ... hey, you're more than welcome.
"You know, I just felt maybe he really needs help," Diaz says.
Diaz says he and the teen went into the diner and sat in a booth.

"The manager comes by, the dishwashers come by, the waiters come by to say hi," Diaz says. "The kid was like, 'You know everybody here. Do you own this place?'"
"No, I just eat here a lot," Diaz says he told the teen. "He says, 'But you're even nice to the dishwasher.'"

Diaz replied, "Well, haven't you been taught you should be nice to everybody?"
"Yea, but I didn't think people actually behaved that way," the teen said.
Diaz asked him what he wanted out of life. "He just had almost a sad face," Diaz says.

The teen couldn't answer Diaz — or he didn't want to.
When the bill arrived, Diaz told the teen, "Look, I guess you're going to have to pay for this bill 'cause you have my money and I can't pay for this. So if you give me my wallet back, I'll gladly treat you."

The teen "didn't even think about it" and returned the wallet, Diaz says. "I gave him $20 ... I figure maybe it'll help him. I don't know."

Diaz says he asked for something in return — the teen's knife — "and he gave it to me."
Afterward, when Diaz told his mother what happened, she said, "You're the type of kid that if someone asked you for the time, you gave them your watch."
"I figure, you know, if you treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right. It's as simple as it gets in this complicated world."

"It's as simple as it gets in this complicated world."

Simple, maybe. Easy, no. But after a friend of mine heard that story, he told me: “Maybe, when Jesus said to love our enemies, maybe he meant it.”


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

to be a witness

Another quote Rebekah shared with me, found in Madeleine L'Engle's Walking on Water, and not without relevance with respect to Sunday's gospel:

"As Emmanuel, Cardinal Suhard says, 'To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one's life would not make sense if God did not exist.'"

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