The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, Year A - February 19, 2017

Preacher: 
The Reverend Amelie Wilmer Minor
Sermon Text: 

The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany

Year A

February 20, 2017

The Reverend Amelie Wilmer Minor

 

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, `An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:38-48)

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All week I’ve been stewing over today’s passage from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which by the way is the last we get to hear from it before we transition into Lent – I promise (!). 

And I’ve been pondering what Jesus has to say about enemies, asking myself:  who are my enemies?  You know, I really don’t have any, if what you mean by that is someone who I wish were destroyed, or dead, who I feel threatened by.  There is no one for whom I don’t want success in life, or health; there is no one (I hope!) who wishes to destroy me.

So when Jesus says that we should love our enemies, my first thoughts are…that isn’t so difficult for me.  After all, we pray for our enemies each week in church, and have heard and probably said a dozen times – especially to our children – that you can love someone while not really liking them. Right? Just keep your distance, and everything will be “just fine,” as they say in the south.

And yet when I am really honest with myself, it occurs to me that by avoiding the people who I don’t agree with, whose values conflict with mine, who I simply don’t feel comfortable with, I’m simply perpetuating an illusion that I don’t hate them, and that if I don’t hate them, I can love them from afar.

I just keep circling back to what Jesus also says about enemies in today’s gospel  – For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?

If you take what Jesus is saying here to its logical conclusion, we are required to greet all people, whether we love/like them or not. Avoiding them doesn’t seem to be an option. This is more difficult than I thought.

Our current political climate has highlighted differences between people and groups, between family members, between friends. It has created animosity where it didn’t exist before. And while I still don’t wish anyone ill, I so strongly disagree with some of the public statements of politicians and advocacy groups that I haven’t watched the news in weeks.

I feel as though I’m struggling between “not-hate,” and advocating for what I believe to be biblical imperatives. And yet, there are people who disagree with me who could say the very same thing with just as much honesty as I have.

So I’m avoiding them, because when I get deep down into it, I suppose I’m afraid of what I will feel or say or who I’ll become if I do greet my so called enemies.  Whether on Facebook or Face to Face.  I’m afraid I won’t be so loving.

In a recent blog post, a friend of mine who is also a priest, Susan Daughtry, cut to the core of this dilemma when it comes to engaging those with whom we disagree, and particularly, the role that contempt or scorn can play in wrecking those relationships.  I’d like to share parts of it with you:[1]

She begins by referring to a book written by the relationship guru, Daniel Gottman on making marriages work.[2] In it, Gottman used a technique called "thin slicing" — taking videos of people’s faces while they talked to each other, then pulling out still shots of micro-emotions, splicing them together and analyzing them.

Gottman found that, while we are good at pretending to be happy, or calm, or supportive, our faces tell the truth for a split second before our intention to pretend takes over. In tiny slices of reactive time, people are unable to mask their real emotions with more socially acceptable ones.

“What has stuck with me,” Susan writes, “was this revelation: Gottman said that whenever contempt shows up in those thin-slicing photos, he accurately predicts that the relationship will end. Contempt, or scorn, implies that the person you face is worthless, below you, deserving of scorn. Relationships rarely heal once contempt is in the picture, because one party (or both) has already made it clear they don’t believe the other is worth working for. A fundamental judgment has been made.

“Since then,” she goes on to say, “you better believe I’m highly attuned to what scorn looks like when it’s aimed at people I care about. [Including myself]. The question now, in my mind, is whether I’m attuned to the ways contempt comes from me.”

Much has been written about the role of contempt in getting us to this political situation. Most of what I’ve seen has been about the contempt of privileged, coastal elites for those who don’t see themselves in that category, who might have voted for the current president. That’s a narrative that serves particular political purposes, a narrative that stands on an unveiled heaping dose of contempt.

Susan Continues, “I believe that how we communicate now has everything to do with whether we are rising to the moral crisis before this country or perpetuating it. For whatever cross-party social media contacts do remain: I believe that how we communicate now has everything to do with what reconciliation can look like on the other side.”

For activists, speakers of truth, and certainly for preachers of the Gospel, the challenge is to speak truth clearly without heaping contempt upon those whose actions we judge. When you communicate contempt, you make it very hard for those who find themselves on the wrong side of your story to come toward you. Why would they, when you’ve denounced them as sub-human, stupid, worthless, amoral?

The long, unglamorous work of reconciliation stands on the premise that people are fundamentally worth working for, worth loving, able to live lives of decency and generosity and truthfulness and kindness. We have to believe that they act out of deeply held values.  Of course, we’ve also got to be realistic about human nature, based not only on the news, but on our own experience of self-deception, our own fearfulness and judgment.  But if we don’t defiantly claim a shred of hope that our neighbors are just as worthy of respect as we are, we doom ourselves to fear rather than connection. Why tell the truth to someone you believe isn’t worthy — or capable — of hearing it?

As W. H. Auden put it:

You must love your crooked neighbor,

with your crooked heart.

Susan concludes by saying:  “Speak the truth, name racism and abuse of power for what it is, call out lies, demand accountability, pursue justice. And attend to scorn. You can call out an action without publicizing your inner thoughts about the state of the actor’s soul.”

“But this too,” she adds: “I’m doing my best here to attend to scorn because I believe the spiritual position of putting myself over someone else comes with an inner price to pay for me as well. I’m already paying it. In the case of my own [broken relationships], the scorn I felt and projected was a big red flag that things were in trouble. We parted ways. Yet, in the case of our country and our planet, parting ways is not an option.” 

So, where does that leave you and me? Well, first of all, for today, I am committed to pray. Not just for the things I want to see happen in the areas of justice and peace, but for the people with whom I so deeply disagree. Praying for them is a bit more difficult than simply not-hating them. Not-hate is passive; prayer more active.  And for me, it is the first step.

Of course, I don’t believe for a second that my prayer will “change their hearts,” as Christians often say in their prayers about others they are trying to not-hate. But I do believe it will change my heart.  Because when I pray for someone, I start to see that person as I imagine God does: as a flawed human being made in God’s image. Just like me.  A real person, and not as someone I want to defeat, scorn, or hold in contempt.

And then, I am going to choose to greet and speak my truth to one person with whom I do disagree - who I think is really wrong-headed about justice issues—and I will attend to scorn.  I expect I will be changed. Not in my convictions, but in my humanity. 

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

Jesus invites you to do the same.

 

Amen

 

[1] https://susanldaughtry.wordpress.com/2017/02/01/scorn/

[2] Daniel Gottman, The Seven Principles of Making Marriages Work (New York:  Three Rivers Press, 1999).

 

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