Summer of Love: Love Your Enemies

Matthew 5:43-48

The four gospels and the Apostle Paul all agree on the Greatest Command:  LOVE.

1.      First, Love God – with all your heart mind and strength.  That seems reasonable.  That does seem to be at the heart of religion – love God with all you’ve got.

2.     Second, and close to the first:  Love your neighbor as yourself.  That one may be a bit more of a challenge – because it makes us think – OK, who is our neighbor?  How far does this commandment stretch me?  And there is the prerequisite of loving self.  But OK.  Love.

3.     And then third, the Gospel of Matthew adds to the first two – This:  Then Jesus said, you have heard it said, love your neighbor, and hate your enemy, but I say to you LOVE YOUR ENEMY, and pray for those who persecute you.  LOVE YOUR ENEMY, and pray for those who persecute you.

Oh come on now – who does that?

Seriously – just as a matter of logic and definitions.  Your friends are the ones who support you.  Your enemies are the ones who oppose you.  Our friends are the ones we like.  And love.  Our enemies… well, they stand in opposition to us…  they are the ones we oppose…  they are the ones we often don’t even like.

I had a friend back in Birmingham who was – let’s say cantankerous.  She owned a diner in my neighborhood, and I spent many Saturday mornings hanging out talking and gossiping with her.  But she had her hard edges.  She was incredibly blunt.  Some might call it sassy; others might call it rude.  To paraphrase, Lucy Maud Montgomery, she was known in those parts as a person who spoke her mind.[1]  I had another friend, Allyson, who visited the diner one day, and later said to me, “Scott, your friend Geri – well she is just … mean.”  In my most truth-softening Southern way, I found myself saying this:  “Weeelllll, I think that Geri has a warm place in her heart for the people she likes.”  Well, Allyson, laughed in my face, and said, “Scott Clark, that’s what everyone does.  Everyone has a warm place in their heart for the people they like.  The hard part is having a warm place in your heart for the people you don’t like – or for the people you don’t even know!”

That’s basically what Jesus says here, even as he says:  Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.  It does feel like an impossible command.  Love your enemies.  Really – Who does that?

Well, it may be an impossible command, but it’s one that we have to take seriously.  It’s right here, plain as day, in the Sermon on the Mount –  I also think we have to take it seriously because Matthew’s community did – after their experience of Jesus, they said this teaching to each other again and again, and eventually wrote it down in this gospel.

And they were a people who had enemies.  Just look at the Gospel.  The community that wrote Matthew sure enough didn’t like the Scribes and the Pharisees.  There’s this completely over-the-top tirade against them:  Woe to you Scribes and Pharisees!  Woe to you blind guides!  You lock the people out of heaven!  “You cross the sea to make a convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves!”  They had enemies.

Scholars tend to agree that throughout the gospel, the writer seems to be arguing against someone.[2] It seems likely that the Matthean community has been thrown out of or has left another community, and that didn’t go well. Again and again, the gospel writer is arguing about who is in and who is out – a right way and a wrong way — sheep and goats.  Matthew’s community has enemies – but even as they rail against them – they also wrote this down:  Remember, Jesus said, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”  Who does that?  It’s as if they too knew that this sounded impossible, but that they also knew in their bones that this command had to be taken seriously.  Somehow.

So, for the purposes of our conversation today, I’m going to offer a working definition of “enemy” –  just to ground the conversation:  An enemy is someone who is opposed to the well-being of another.  There’s no magic in that working definition.  We could talk about the forces or powers in the world that are our enemies.  Or we could speak of internal enemies.  But today, we’re going to be fairly literal.  We’re going to talk about people – An enemy is someone who is opposed to the well-being of another.

Now, that can manifest in a number of different ways.  There are those we identify as enemies – whether they know it or not, whether they intend it or not. When I was practicing law, I was locked into a battle with an opposing lawyer on a case that lasted for 10 years.  He was a more experienced, well-known attorney – and he was aggressive in his advocacy, he pushed his arguments as far as they could go.  I was young and energetic, and in response, as a part of my advocacy, I developed oh about 57 different was to creatively say that he was stretching the facts – everything from “Well that’s just a lie” to “Let’s put Mr. Hitchens on the stand and put him under oath so we can make sure he’s telling the truth.”  I was pretty obnoxious.  And our debate often sounded like this: [hand gestures]  And then one day, we were on a conference call, and he just exploded, “Scott, you are just a caricature of yourself!!!”  Some of the best feedback I’ve ever received.

You see, for 10 years, he and I danced back and forth across the line between professional adversaries and enemies – we had to watch for that point where we our aggressive advocacy started to become “going for the jugular.”  And we didn’t always get that right.  And it was complicated. Sometimes my thinking he was an enemy was more about my stance toward him than it was about anything he had done that day.  He could get me so angry.  And yet, it was a relationship in which I had a good bit of agency – agency to name the other as enemy, or not – agency to work to make that relationship something other than enmity.  And he had that agency too.  There are those we identify as enemy – whether they know it or not, whether they intend it or not.

AND, then, there are also those out there who are opposed to our well-being – whether we know it or not, whether we intend it or not, whether we participate in it or not. I didn’t have a full appreciation of this type of enemy until I arrived at seminary.  I came to seminary at a time when the church officially prohibited the ordination of LGBTQ people.  I arrived hopeful, and a bit naïve, only to discover that there were folks in the national Presbyterian church – lots of folks – who actively opposed the ordination of people like me – the full inclusion in the life of the church – of people like me.  And they didn’t just actively opposed it – they were organized to oppose it.  They were organized to oppose the ordination of LGBTQ people – and to oppose our marriages – and our families.  And over the years, as I entered into those debates and into that struggle, I sat in so many Presbyterian rooms (and Presbyterian courtrooms), where people said the most horrible things about people like me.  I won’t repeat the things they compared us to, or the ways that they demeaned our relationships and our families.  There are those out there who are opposed to our well-being – whether we know it or not, or intend it or not.

And then, as I continued through seminary, and learned more about how systemic injustice works, I discovered – and continue to discover – how I oppose the well-being of others — through my participation and complicity in systems of oppression – and not only that, but by my own individual action that embodies my own implicit bias.  And I’ve had to face the ways that I am an enemy to others –  unintended, intended, either way real – ways that I oppose the well-being of others.

So what we are left with is this intricate web of broken relationships – all the ways that we oppose (collectively and individually) the well-being of each other – all the ways that we oppose God’s desire for the well-being of everyone – through our participation in systems of oppression, through our complicity, through our own daily action, through our silence.  And all the ways that others do that to us.

Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.

It feels like an impossible command.  Who does that?

Well, you know, that question actually has an answer.

Romans 8:  Who is in a position to condemn?  Only Christ Jesus.  And Jesus died, and was raised, and prays for us. And through Christ Jesus we learn that nothing can separate us from God’s love for us – no enmity, no power – not life, not death: not the past, not the present, not the future; not height or length or breadth or depth. Nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love for us in Christ Jesus.

This is the one who says:  Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.  As impossible for us as it was for Matthew’s community.  Who does this?  Christ Jesus.  The one who says this is the one who does this.  And then, Jesus says, “Be perfect like this.”  As if it weren’t impossible enough already.  But New Testament scholar Ulrich Luz offers some help – he takes that “Be perfect” not as an additional burden, but as an invitation – an invitation to venture out on the path toward perfection – to venture out on the path toward what seems impossible – to venture out on the path toward Jesus.  And so Luz points to the Didache (an early 2nd century teaching text), which says, “If you can take the entire yoke of the Lord upon yourself, you will be perfect; but if you can’t, do what you can.”[3]

Even with an impossible command, do what you can.

In that spirit, I want to offer up three notions.  And I call them “notions” in recognition that my own work on this is so very incomplete. These notions are the best I can muster, and you might even, fairly, call them the least we can do.  We do what we can.

The first notion is actually a notion that comes from Buddhist teaching.  I heard Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzburg and scholar Robert Thurman talking about this command – Love your enemy – this teaching of Jesus – and offering a Buddhist response.[4]  They offered up this:  Love your enemy is a hard teaching.  So they point to a “midway station.”  If we can’t quite get all the way to loving our enemy, perhaps we can start with not hating.  All the things that stir up inside of us in response to this enemy – all the anger, violence, hatred, aggravation, obsession – rehearsing again and again all the ways they’ve wronged us – imagining what they will do today – how we will retaliate – checking Facebook to see the latest outrageous thing they’ve done or said – all that stuff that stirs up inside us.  Just stop.  At the very least just stop that.  As best we can, move to a neutral position.  Resolve — at the very least – to co-exist.  And once we get non-hatred going, maybe then we can move on toward love and compassion.

The second notion responds to the second part of the command – pray for those who persecute you.  And I will confess that this arises out of my own struggle with praying for our President, someone with whom I deeply disagree.  I came to a point about a month ago where I could not find words to pray for him.  And I name that as sin.  At the very least, I should be able to pray for his humanity.  And so maybe we start there.  Maybe we start by praying for the humanity of the other – God, bless this person’s humanity – your own beloved child – today, may they have enough food to eat, and shelter, may they experience health and wholeness, may love thrive in their family and in their community.  Again, this falls into the category of the least we can do.  But maybe we can start there.

And then, the third notion, speaks to the further question, how can I pray for the other – with authenticity – when I am convicted that something vital and important is at stake – protection of the vulnerable, my own personal safety, release from any manner of oppression.

Tomorrow, I will go into work and I will be as committed to transgender rights tomorrow as I am today.  I will work so that the seminary’s commitment to non-discrimination is steadfast, and so that we are stating that commitment as strongly and clearly as we can.  And I will continue to celebrate our transgender students, AND our first openly transgender MDiv graduate Rev. Jamie Lee Sprague- Ballou, who just graduated in May, and who was the first in her class to be ordained.  I will strengthen my commitment to work for an end to the violence done far too often to transgender people.  So, with that commitment, how can I pray (with authenticity) for someone whom I believe, just this past week, as done grave harm to the transgender community?

I will confess – and I am showing you how small I can be – I confess that my instinct is to pray something like, “O Lord just help so and so stop being so evil.”  But that’s not fair, and it doesn’t leave room for my own responsibility.  So perhaps we can start here:  Maybe we can pray for what is at stake, and then how we can help:  “God, I pray for an end to transphobia – please show so and so AND me how we can help you make it so – individually and together.”

That’s all I can muster.  The command still feels nigh onto impossible to me.  That’s all I can muster, except to say this: In this scripture, in the gospel, in the life of Christ, what we see is this:  Jesus loves us toward loving God, toward loving self, toward loving neighbor, and even toward loving enemy.

Now, here I am almost at the end of the sermon and I haven’t mentioned the Summer of Love.  So, here’s what I have to say about the Summer of Love:  I was born in it.  Nearly 50 years ago, I was born into the last days of the sweltering Summer of 1967.

I was born into a world that was deeply in conflict – the Cold War was on.  This nation was deeply divided over the War in Vietnam.  In just a couple years, my father would go to faithfully serve his country in Vietnam, even as people of deep conviction took to the streets to oppose this nation’s engagement in that war.

I was born into a world where streets were burning, in what is also known as that LONG HOT SUMMER of 1967, as this nation’s then nearly 450-year history of racism was being laid bare by protest and by the courage of the civil rights movement.

I was born into a nation that would soon elect a President who was corrupt, and dishonest, who undermined our democratic institutions, and who would be forced from office.

And I was born into a world, where a human, made from the dust of this planet, was about to step foot on the moon – as a little-watched television show proclaimed weekly a mission “to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

At different times during this year, we’ve heard people say – maybe we’ve said it ourselves – “This is as bad as it has been in the world.”  Well, that’s not true.  But more importantly, it’s not the point.  The point is that this IS the world.  This is the world we are called to love.  It is ugly, and violent, and unfair.  AND, it is full of beauty, and joy, and life.  And we are called, not only to love it, but we are called to love this world as Jesus loves this world.  We are called to love it whole.  That is our calling and our work.

It is our work to break down the prison doors so that every captive can go free – no matter how we believe they have wronged us.

It is our work to bind up the brokenhearted, no matter what their political party, or religion, or nation.

It is our work to end every type of oppression – to build a world of justice, and freedom, and peace.

And that’s not just our work in the world that struggled in 1967, or in the world that struggles today in the summer of 2017.  It is our work that summer, and this summer, and then, fall, and winter, and spring, and summer, and fall, and winter… It is our work for every day and every season of our life, until that great and glorious day when God’s perfect reign of peace is established here in this world.

Because we know the promise.

With this work, and in that day, the lion will lie down with the lamb.

In that day – every power that oppresses – every ism and phobia that holds us down and holds us back – racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenopohbia – every power-over will be thrown into the sea.

In that day, no child will go hungry, and everyone will have enough.

In that day – people will come from East and West, and South and North, to feast at the table of our God.  And at that table. Every body will have a place.  Every BODY – black bodies, brown bodies, white bodies; TRANSGENDER bodies, cisgender bodies, queer bodies, straight bodies, female bodies, male bodies, bodies of every gender – Every Body will have a place at the table.

And in that day, God will wipe away every tear, and she will gather us all together in her everlasting embrace, and say to us –

“Look around, look around.

Do you see?

Do you see now?

This is what I meant when I said LOVE.”


Copyright 2017 Scott Clark, reprinted with permission.


[1] A trait claimed by Rachel Lind in Anne of Green Gables
[2] The assessment of the social situation of Matthew’s community is drawn from M. Eugene Boring’s commentary in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Abingdon Press 1995); and Ulrich Luz, The Theology of the Gospel of Matthew (Cambridge University Press 1993).
[3] Luz, The Theology of the Gospel of Matthew, at 55.
[4] Interview on the On Being podcast, December 15, 2016.

1 Comment

  1. Julie Love

    Tue 19th Sep 2017 at 12:27 pm

    Wow, Scott–
    I just read your sermon on loving each other. It was very lively, powerful and encouraging. Thank you. You continue to surprise me with your wisdom and honesty. Thank you. The love that Jesus calls us to is hard, so hard sometimes. Connected so deeply with our ability to forgive. Something I care deeply about. Thank you for sharing with all of us!
    Julie Love


Add comment