The Noble Infection

Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Michael Lyle, July 23, 2017

(Matthew 5:43-38) I borrowed the sermon title from Jesuit Priest, anti-war activist, and poet Daniel Berrigan. Following the 1st Iraq war, Berrigan was asked why there seemed to be so little concern among the general public about the thousands of Iraqis killed in the war. Berrigan replied, “Perhaps if Christians undertook to obey the plain command of Christ to love our enemies, the noble infection might spread, heart to heart.” (The Sun magazine, August 2017, p. 12)

I like the phrase “noble infection,” because we tend to find Jesus’ admonition to love our enemies about as welcome as the flu. America hasn’t been this polarized since the Civil War. Facebook posts, the 24 hour news cycle, everything underscores this deep polarization multiple times a day. Very few seem to be loving their enemy, and most people probably don’t even think it’s possible.

Of course it’s possible, or Jesus wouldn’t ask us to do it. It’s more than possible. It’s essential. It’s essential to our being the people of God. It’s possible. It’s essential. But it’s definitely not easy.

American author and journalist Paul Krassner once quipped that “The last time I saw [the spiritual teacher] Ram Dass, he told me ‘I’m trying really hard to love George Bush.’ I laughed and said, ‘Thirty years ago you told me, ‘I’m trying really hard to love Richard Nixon.’ So the struggle goes on. Only the names have changed.” (The Sun, August 2017 p. 25)

Only the names indeed. The people around Jesus, and the people of the faith community in which Matthew’s Gospel originated, knew their enemies well: Rome and its brutal minions (especially the tax collectors who repeatedly cheated them), and everyone from the Emperor, to the local governors, to the soldiers who oppressed and persecuted them. But this isn’t ancient history.

We live in a free society on the other side of the world from ancient Palestine, two millennia later, and our enemies are as prevalent and well defined as ever. If they aren’t specific people, they are members of some group or other. It’s likely that, generally speaking, our enemies are either Democrats or Republicans, progressives or conservatives, Barack, Hillary or Donald; Mitch or Nancy, or any number of lesser examples of the same.

In the current toxic national climate, even if no specific individual is directly persecuting or cheating us, it kind of feels like they are. Many people seem to think there are a lot of enemies out there, lots of others who are getting in the way of what they want, frustrating their plans, interfering with their agendas, and impeding their best progress, both personally and as a group. Only the names have changed.

This teaching is fundamentally relevant and deeply personal. Our enemies aren’t just the other party or the other side of the argument, they personify for us, exemplify for us, everything that is wrong; wrong with our nation, our economy, our culture and the lives we want to lead. And Jesus expects us to love them. It’s possible. It’s essential. It’s quite a challenge, because it requires a fundamental reordering of who we are.

Perhaps our initial reaction to Jesus’ call to love our enemies is the fear that if we do, we somehow acquiesce, agree with, or fall into league with, people whose behavior and positions we fundamentally abhor and find repulsive and downright evil.

A conversation between Tibetan Buddhist and author Pema Chodron, and American author and activist bell hooks is very instructive at this point, and worth our careful attention.

Pema Chodron begins by saying, “We rob ourselves of being in the present by always thinking the payoff will come in the future. But the only place ever to work is right now . . . Any teaching that has us looking ahead is missing the point.”
To which bell hooks responds: “Much of my work revolves around ending racism and sexism. . . I have to have a vision of a future in which racism and sexism are no longer part of our lives. Do you think that’s too utopian?”
Chodron: “I prefer to work with aspiration . . . It’s all right to long to end suffering, but somehow it paralyzes us if we’re too goal-oriented about it. Do you see the balance there?”
hooks: “Yet it seems very hard for people to fight racism and sexism without any hope for an end to them. So much despair and apathy arise from the feeling that we struggle and struggle and not much happens.”
Chodron: “The main issue here is aggression . . . aggression toward the oppressor. Don’t you encounter many people who have good intentions but who get very angry, depressed and resentful?”
hooks: “You’re talking to one! I get so overwhelmed sometimes.”
Chodron: “Doesn’t that get in the way of your efforts?”
hooks: “It does . . . [when dealing with those who disagree] I start to get irritable. The irritability mounts, then collapses into sorrow. I came home the other day and sat down at my table and just wept.”
Chodron: “Well, isn’t that the point? That we’re all the same, really; we just get stuck in different ways? Getting stuck in any kind of self-and-other tension seems to cause pain. If you keep your heart and mind open to those people, and resist any tendency to close down toward them, perhaps the cycle of racism and cruelty can start to de-escalate.” (The Sun, August, 2017, p. 14)

The message of that conversation between those two thoughtful and spiritual people is just another way of saying that only by actually loving our enemy can “the noble infection” begin to “spread, heart to heart.” It’s additional testimony to Jesus’ very possible, very essential, urging to love our enemies.

Jesus, of course, knows all this and more. All of this is the way it was in his day and the way it still is. Jesus encourages us to love, not to agree. We are not asked to knuckle under, keep quiet, surrender our principles, or stop working, marching, writing, and speaking out for social justice. Quite the contrary. We are expected to continue all of this, perhaps even to redouble our efforts, but only, only from the place of genuine love for our enemies.

It’s the essence of the kingdom of God and the heart of the Christian faith. And in case we are uncertain about the exact nature of this love, a theologian provides clarification. Love, in the case of this particular teaching, is “the benevolent lovingkindness which seeks the material and spiritual good of others.” (Sherman Johnson, IB, Vol. 7, p. 303) REPEAT!

We are to offer our enemies mercy and kindness, and seek both their material good and the spiritual upbuilding of their souls. Loving our enemies is very personal indeed.

We can’t give another something we don’t have ourselves. We can’t offer God’s lovingkindness to friend or enemy, unless WE know, unless we live within the divine grace and mercy that seeks our material and spiritual well being in every moment. As is always the case with spiritual work, the first person to benefit is us, and then, by default, those around us, including, especially, our enemies.

We can’t love our enemies by digging deep and making ourselves do it, or because Jesus said so, or because it’s the right thing to do. We can only love from relationship with God. We can only extend lovingkindness to our enemies by holding them in our hearts the way God holds us in God’s heart.

That’s how Gandhi and Martin King led non-violent movements that spoke God’s justice to power without hating, or trying to destroy the opposition. That’s how Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu peacefully transformed a divided, oppressive nation into a unified, better nation. God offers all of us a new way of being and living.

Those who want this new way, God’s way, the only way that can save this broken world, must walk closely with God every day and there will never be a better time to start that walk than right now.

Some of us grew up in churches with altar calls, dramatic public moments when lives were dedicated, or rededicated to Christ. There were long walks down church aisles, tears of contrition and joy, and certain words that eventually had to be said.

These moments were meaningful ports of entry into the kingdom of God for many. But there is no such requirement. There never was.

There are no rules when it comes to God and human hearts. Actually, God mostly comes in subtler ways, quieter moments, and much greater mystery; mystery we cannot understand or control.

Whenever and however we sense God’s lovingkindness coming to us, we just need to let it in. God will never disappoint us, will never stop loving us, and will help us love everyone, even our enemies.

Let us pray: You are here Lord, in your word and through the Holy Spirit. We are deeply blessed by your gentle, loving presence.

Rescue us from anger, frustration and their minions as we open our hearts to you. Help us to grow moment by moment, day by day, into people of your love. Amen.

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