Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany – February 24, 2019
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
On June 17, 2015 a group of African Americans were meeting for Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina when a young white man named Dylan Roof joined them. They welcomed him warmly and he spent nearly an hour with them at Bible study before he pulled out a gun and opened fire, killing nine of the thirteen people present. He later said he wanted to spark a race war.
Two days later there was a bond hearing where the judge allowed the families of Roof’s victims to speak. There was a mother who lost her adult son. There were adult children who lost a parent. There were parishioners who lost their pastor. Many of them spoke, and what they said, at least for a moment, captured the world’s attention. Through their grief and pain, one after another they offered words of forgiveness to the young man who tried to start a race war in the middle of their Bible study class. They offered words of love to this young man who murdered their loved ones. “I just want everybody to know I forgive you,” one said. “You took something precious from me, but I forgive you.” Another said, “My biggest hope is that you find Jesus there in your cell.” Another said, “God have mercy on you.” Newspapers and websites around the world picked up their words, and so instead of sparking a race war like Roof intended, millions of people around the world heard a powerful witness to Christ Jesus.
Today we pick up where we left off last week with Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. In this second installment of this challenging sermon we hear Jesus say, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.”
I believe the witness of these families at Dylan Roof’s bond hearing is a good example of these words in action for two reasons. First, these brothers and sisters in Christ at Emanuel AME were living out these words by extending forgiveness at a time when no one would have blamed them for calling for revenge. Instead of wanting Dylan Roof to be tortured or to burn in hell, they wanted him to know Jesus. Just as they welcomed this young man into their Bible study, so too did they want to see him welcomed into heaven, into Paradise, through the mercy of Christ Jesus. That’s loving your enemies! That is blessing those who curse you! That is praying for those who abuse you!
The second reason I believe this is a good example of how Jesus’ words can be lived out is that these words were spoken while Dylan Roof was in police custody. He was in a prison jumpsuit with armed guards on both sides of him. He wasn’t even in the courtroom, but was instead on a screen, safely removed from his victim’s families, so that if he started spouting racist epithets, they could just turn him off. Those words of forgiveness were spoken after he was no longer an immediate threat to them. They were spoken after he was in the process of facing earthly justice.
Moreover, no one said that what he did was OK. Quite the contrary, there were gut-wrenching words spoken about the pain and anguish he caused, about what had been taken away from them by his actions. Painful truths were told. No one suggested that the forgiveness they offered meant he should be uncuffed and let out of jail.
This doesn’t take anything away from the powerful words that were spoken in that courtroom. When everyone was expecting those families to rage with bitterness and hatred and no one would have blamed them, they instead spoke words of love and mercy and forgiveness. But the context is important. He was no longer in a position to harm them, and earthly justice was in the process of being carried out.
I am usually very careful in trying not to take the sting out of Jesus’ words when I preach. I try to be careful about not watering down his more challenging words with lots of caveats and overinterpretation. But in the case of what we hear Jesus say today, I feel it is necessary to put an asterisk next to his words. I could be wrong. I could be doing the very thing I try to avoid doing most Sundays. But I believe it needs to be said that in most cases – not all – but in most cases loving your enemies does not mean allowing them to continue harming you. I believe that doing good to those who hurt you does not mean covering up for them. I believe that praying for those who abuse you does not mean praying that they get away with it.
I believe that in the wrong hands, or in the wrong context, these words of Jesus can be used in a way that lets evil flourish. For instance, I’ve seen situations where abused wives are convinced that the loving, Christian thing to do is to let their husbands continue to hurt them while they pray for them. Turn the other cheek, right? We’ve heard terrible stories of altar boys being abused by priests and young men and women being abused by pastors, and one reason they get away with it for so long is that people think Jesus wants them to be nice to those who are abusing them. My friends, sometimes before you pray you need to call the police! Sometimes you need to forgive from a distance, after you are no longer in danger. I know that’s not explicitly what Jesus says, and maybe I am guilty of watering down his words, but I don’t think so. After all, in Romans St. Paul tells us that the authorities are God’s servants, and that they do not bear the sword in vain. Their God-given vocation is to inflict punishment on evildoers, so that evil would be restrained and society would have a measure of order to it.
I do not believe that turning the other cheek means to literally let people hit you again. But it does mean to let go of the hatred that would cause you to strike back in anger. It does mean letting go of your right to take an eye for an eye. It does mean to let go of your lust for revenge. Loving your enemies doesn’t mean letting them hurt you, but it does mean seeing even the worst people on the face of the earth as human beings created in the image of God, as beloved children for whom Christ died.
I pray that none of us ever has an enemy like Dylan Roof, but we all have opportunities to extend mercy and forgiveness to others in our daily lives. Sometimes those “enemies” are people in our own families, as it was for Joseph in our first reading for today. Some of us have siblings or other family members who need our forgiveness and mercy, who need us to pray for them. I’m mindful of Ruth Graham’s bit of wisdom when she said, “A happy marriage is the union of two good forgivers.” Sometimes our “enemies” are people in our congregation or our community or our country whose personalities or politics rub us the wrong way. Jesus calls us to a higher form of love that extends even to them. Sometimes our “enemies” are people who cut us off in traffic, or mess up our order at Starbucks, or take twenty items into the twelve-items-or-less line at the grocery store. We often want to judge and condemn such people, but instead our Lord Jesus calls us to love and forgive them.
We love like this because this is how Jesus loves us. We forgive because we ourselves have been forgiven. We live like this because God has poured his love and forgiveness into our hearts in such a way that it begins to overflow towards others. This is all part of God’s work in us to shape us into people who are other-centered rather than self-centered. It is primarily is for the benefit of those we bless, and not for ourselves. It isn’t something we do for our own personal benefit – but there is a benefit to us as well.
It has been said that refusing to forgive is like drinking poison and then waiting for the other person to die. When we don’t forgive the wrongs done to us, big or little, we let that bitterness and anger continue to course through our veins. This makes us sick! It makes us spiritually and emotionally unwell. And so while we don’t want to turn forgiveness into just another self-centered self-improvement project, the truth is it does have benefits for us. Forgiveness is the only way to release that bitterness and anger. It is the only way to get it out of our veins.
Jesus doesn’t want you to be sick. So who is he calling you to forgive today? What enemy is he calling you to love?
This is hard, I know. Sometimes it us a lifelong process. I am personally encouraged and inspired to love and to forgive by our brothers and sisters in Christ at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church, and I hope you are too. But as we struggle to love our enemies, as we struggle to do good to those who hate us, as we struggle to bless those who curse us, we do so knowing that Christ’s love and forgiveness are already ours.
Because you see, on the cross, Jesus fulfilled his own sermon for us. On the cross, we see Christ loving his enemies by dying for them. We see him bearing the curse of our sin. We see him praying for us as we crucified him, asking God to forgive us. On the cross we see Christ loving us so much that he suffered and died for us that we would have forgiveness and eternal life.
And so, on the cross we see that even while we struggle to love and forgive, we are loved and forgiven.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church