+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Here’s a bit of liturgical trivia, which may surprise you. The number of Sundays which fall between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday as well as the number of Sundays which fall between Pentecost and Advent 1 is variable, since the date of Easter is itself variable (it’s always the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox for complicated reasons). That being the case, and because we have been on a three-year lectionary since the 1979 BCP replaced the one-year pattern of previous prayerbooks, there are some lessons we just don’t get to hear very often, because they occur in late Epiphanytide or early Whitsuntide (the fancy term for the season after Pentecost, or Whitsunday) on Sundays that frequently don’t get observed. Anyway, this week provides us one of those rarely heard sets of lessons. In fact, I learned from a friends’ social media post, that we will not have heard these lessons in church since 2001. I’m sure I heard a sermon on one of these texts that morning, but I was a junior in high school at the time, and I don’t remember it.
It’s a shame, because the message our Lord delivers in today’s Gospel–in his continuation of the Sermon on the Plain, whose beginning we heard last week–is one each of us needs to hear over and over again, and certainly more frequently than once every couple of decades.
So what is the message we don’t hear enough because of this peculiarity in our calendar? “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Maybe I’m the only one here with this problem; it’s entirely possible I am the greatest sinner in this regard in a room full of honest-to-God “capital S” Saints, but somehow I doubt I’m the only one with this difficulty. Of all the moral demands of the Gospel, I find this to be the most difficult, personally.
But let’s take a step back. Who is this enemy we’re supposed to love? I suspect that most of us most of the time don’t have people of ill will who are actively attempting to do us harm. Now, sometimes we do. I have enough family and friends who are or were academics, and I believe that this is, sadly, a more common phenomenon in that arena than we’d like to imagine (this, by the way, is the reason Annie’s chief concern when we started talking about marriage was about the possibility that I might get a Ph.D. And a tenure track position and be forever bitter and in conflict). This happens in other arenas, of course–in families, in politics, even in churches–and if your perceived enemy is a straight-up combatant wishing you harm and possessing some capacity to actually inflict it, the task of loving them is certainly more difficult, and perhaps more important for the well-being of your own soul, if for no other reason than having such an enemy can lead to resentment, which in my experience manifests as a kind of obsession in which said enemy’s existence in your mind is so consuming that it can be like a bit of acerbic poison which makes everything in one’s heart bitter.
But, like I said, most of us don’t always have such adversaries hounding us all the time. More commonly, it is somebody we just don’t particularly like, somebody whose personality irks us or whose approach to us is condescending or with whom we have some difference of opinion in politics or philosophy with which we so vehemently disagree that they irritate us more than we should let them. We all have personal buttons which some are expert in finding and pushing, intentionally or unintentionally.
I’ll tell you what mine is. I have trouble with people who are either bossy or whom I perceive as being “know-it-alls.” You know why? Well, it’s because when I’m not keeping myself in check and striving through prayer to have the Lord help me in restraining myself, I can be a bossy, know-it-all. Some of my colleagues, I think, put too much faith into Carl Jung’s analytic theories, but one thing I think Jung got right was in his identification of the shadow side, and the recognition that what most irritates us about others is likely what we most dislike about ourselves. This is a liberating idea, because it helps us identify something we can, with God’s help, affect (namely, our own reactions), rather than something we usually cannot (namely others’ actions and perceptions of us).
So, what do we do about this, whether we have a full-on adversary gunning for us or just somebody who bugs the fire out of us? Well, Jesus tells us in this morning’s Gospel, right? Love them and do good for them. But how? Perhaps the second most practical bit of advice I’ve ever received along these lines outside scripture (and I’ll mention number one in a minute), is the following from C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity:
Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.
Here’s one of my homiletical hobbyhorses again. Remember: Christian love isn’t about warm fuzzy feelings. You might eventually get there, but that’s not the goal. Love is a set of intentions and actions centered on placing the good of another above one’s own good. So behave lovingly to your enemy, and presently you will come to love him.
But what if you’re not in a position to do anything practically loving for this enemy of yours? Again, Jesus gives us the answer in this morning’s Gospel. Bless them and pray for them. And here’s the number one practical advice I’ve received along these lines outside of scripture, and it didn’t come from Lewis or Chesterton or Newman or any of my favorites, but from an old drunk who knew that even though he hadn’t picked up a drink in decades, the one thing that would probably make him do just that was if he nursed a resentment against somebody. He knew that if he gave that enemy the right to “live rent free in his own head” he’d probably start drinking again. He said, and this is a paraphrase:
“I didn’t pray for God to turn his heart or change his mind or make him better to me or make him fall and break his back. I just prayed, over and over again, that God would bless him and give him every good thing he needed. At first, I thought it was stupid, but I kept doing it. Then I found I didn’t hate him anymore. Then I found I loved him.”
That, my friends, is not an easy thing to do. I try to do it every day in my private prayers. Sometimes I succeed; sometimes I find myself reverting back to praying for God to change somebody else or (worse) to heap judgment on my enemies, and then I realize I have a lot more work to do in order to pray aright. But I keep at it, and my prayer is that you will keep at it, too.
Christ tells us today to give, to forgive, to withhold judgment, and above all, to love and to pray, with no expectation whatsoever that there will be any reciprocation. You see, the economy of the Kingdom of God is not transactional. The only transaction that ever mattered was the full payment of our sin debt on the cross, the account is closed, and we are called to live as those who, in everything that really matters, are neither debtors nor creditors. So we are called to approach our enemies with Grace and Grace alone. Just as righteousness has been imputed to us, we treat as lovely those who have been ugly to us, because, just like us, they have been made lovely by the beloved Son of God.
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.