Picture above is entitled "Empty Boat" depicts a small wooden row boat in the middle of choppy waters under a storming sky.
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
February 24, 2019
Jeremiah 17:5-8; Luke 6:17-26
Soon after the Way of Jesus became legitimized by the empire, as it was on its way to becoming the official religious arm of the state, some who were deeply committed to the Way of Jesus found that the core teachings were being compromised and mitigated. It was an exchange of security in the place of faithfulness. Some few, and then in increasing numbers, found their way to the wilderness, what they called the desert, even when it was merely quiet, vast, and sparsely populated. This was the early origin of monasticism. In fact, the word monastic means a singular and stationary prayer. They were called desert fathers and mothers – Abbas and Ammas. They lived in isolation and yet in community. They prayed or meditated without ceasing in exceedingly simple circumstances, and yet they were loosely connected in networks. They might go years without any direct contact with one another, but were aware of each other’s presence nearby. It may have been centuries before such “monks” found that their inward gaze – their search for the Creator – connected them ever more deeply to each other and to all of creation. There is a kind of loop in which both ends of the spectrum meet in the source of all life, the locus and the origin of self-giving love – the primary characteristic of the divine.
The story is told that two of the earliest such solitary seekers of the divine – lets call them Abba Alpha and Abba Beta – met by chance at a spring. Not having seen each other or anyone for many months, they fell into an extended exchange about their discoveries in isolation. Abba Alpha said to Abba Beta, “Let us also have a fight like other men.” Abba Beta replied, “I do not know how to fight.” Abba Alpha said to him, “Look, I will put a brick between us, and I will say: it is mine; and you will reply: no, it is mine; and so the fight will begin.” So, they put a brick between them and the first said, “It is mine,” and the other said, “No, it is mine.” And the first replied, “If it is yours, take it and go.” So, they gave it up without being able to find a cause for an argument. There is something mutual about disagreement. You can’t disagree with someone who refuses to disagree. You might say, it takes two to tango – that is to move together intimately, AND it takes two to tangle – that is to disagree. But the status “enemy” is different. The “enemy” is unilateral, and usually it is an expression of the power of one over another or one against another. ἐχθροὺς (ekthrous) literally means hater, the one whose behavior is actively, though not necessarily consciously, dismissive, abusive, or oppressive. It is literally the opposite of ἀγαπητός (agapatos), or beloved.
“Love your enemies and do good to those that persecute you.”
What was Jesus thinking? Who was this Jesus? To whom was he speaking? Who might their enemies be? Jesus and his audience were what Howard Thurman – who was mentor and friend to Martin Luther King, Jr., and by many accounts laid the moral foundations for the civil rights movement – called the disinherited. It’s easy for us to forget that Jesus was a brown man in a white dominant world. Of course, those terms would not have been used except in their most literal meaning. But he was a religious and ethnic minority in a time and place dominated by a European occupier. And he was poor in a three-class society. Though it would not be recognizable to us as middle class – he lived on the lower edge of the massive middle that barely survived on subsistence farming or craft piecework – fortunate not to be a beggar. And yet his people were not in command of their own economic or political fate. That was left to the elites who populated and manipulated the positions of power. The enemies he spoke of were very real, and posed a threat to life and all that was held dear.
Most of us would be hard pressed to name a bona fide enemy. It is a mark of our privilege as a society not to experience directly a true enemy in the sense that Jesus meant. In his seminal book Jesus and the Disinherited, Howard Thurman defines three different kinds of enemies that Jesus may have been addressing in his teaching about enemies. Thurman says,
“There is first the personal enemy, one who is in some sense part of one’s primary-group life. The relationship with such a person I s grounded in more or less intimate, personal associations into which has entered conflict…. The enemy in this sense is one who at some time was a rather intimate part of one’s world and was close enough to be taken into account in terms of intimacy. To love such an enemy requires reconciliation, the will to reestablish a relationship. It involves confession of error and seeking to be restored to one’s former relationship.”[i]
Despite its intimacy, this is probably the most achievable in terms of loving one’s enemy. It requires a precondition of relationship – even if that relationship is not a personal one. It applies within one’s community or kind. The disinherited can re-own one of their own who has been disowned, as can the privileged. It is, as Thurman writes, to “Love those who have a natural claim upon you. To those who have no such claim, there is no responsibility.”[ii]
“The second kind of enemy comprises those persons who, by their activities, by their activities, make it difficult for [their own] group to live without shame and humiliation.”[iii] These are the ones to whom there is a sense of mutual belonging, but who for their own survival find it convenient or necessary to comply with the regime of the oppressor. In Jesus time and place, these were the tax-collectors, the publicans, who sold out their own people while perhaps representing themselves as exemplary. They are the traitors, the turncoats, the ones who leveraged their own intimacy with their people in order to lift themselves up in emulation of their wealthy, elite rulers and occupiers. “To be required to love such a person was the final insult.”[iv] And yet Jesus sought the company of the tax collector as well as the common fisherfolk. “When Jesus became a friend to the tax collectors and secured one as his intimate companion, it was a spiritual triumph of such staggering proportions that after nineteen hundred years it defies rational explanation.”[v] To love such a one, Thurman points out, is to acknowledge they are a beloved child of God, made in God’s own image, an identity deeper than any sin. This is probably the enemy to whom Jesus was referring in the text today, “Love your enemies, and do good to those who persecute you.” But there is a third enemy, who is a greater threat, and being less personal, presents a more difficult challenge to love.
“The third type of enemy was exemplified by Rome. The elements at work here were both personal and impersonal…. To deal with Rome as a moral enemy required a spiritual recognition of the relationship with empire…. To love the Roman meant first to lift him out of the general classification of enemy. The Roman had to emerge as a person.”[vi] How do we love this impersonal enemy – this one with whom we have no prior relationship, the one to whom we have no general obligation of class or race or faith? It does no good to pretend that such boundaries do not exist. To be color-blind is not the desired end for the beloved community. Indeed, that would be to deny the kaleidoscopic beauty of creation. But it is not enough to establish intimate friendships across such boundaries – because the territories that those boundaries define will persist. Instead, a new place, a third place must be laid out, in which relationships are truly free, for “love is only possible between two freed spirits.”[vii] While we claim that love is the source and power and end of all that is – a territory of liberation must be staked out for love to thrive in our midst. It is a territory in which we retain our identity and splendor as God’s beloved creatures while also meeting each other soul to soul.
Establishing and maintaining that territory of liberation could be the work of the body of Christ. Ideally the church is the academy in which we train our God-given aptitude to recognize and celebrate the image of God in every beloved creature. The history of the followers of Jesus might be characterized as the continual reform of a movement of liberation, that because of its very freedom and our very human vulnerability tends to be diverted by comfort, convenience, and compromise, and coopted by what our baptismal vows name as the spiritual forces of wickedness – principalities, powers, and privilege. Howard Thurman was bold enough to establish such a congregation. “The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples is an interfaith, interracial, intercultural community of seekers dedicated to personal empowerment and social transformation through an ever deepening relationship with the Spirit of God in All Life. …for over 70 years the church has helped people to discover God’s purpose for their lives.”[viii]
A couple of weeks ago we tried to define the kind of love that Jesus commands of us for our enemies. In light of this new command to love the haters, let’s review some of those definitions:
“Love is… putting the other first, listening when you had other things you wanted to do.”
“Love is… not judging, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, and seeing through their eyes.”
“Love is… kindness, understanding, generosity, forgiveness, hope, a gift, powerful, gentle, faith, charity.”
“Love is… eagerness to learn about the other, accepting of conflict as part of a relationship, readiness to see the other person’s point of view, not taking things personally.”
“Love is… understanding with patience, love without boundaries, given to all without limits, open to all without conditions, and ignoring any prejudices.”
Currently, our denomination, The United Methodist Church, is meeting in St. Louis to determine the next step in its navigation along the path toward liberation or to succumb to the pull toward comfort, convenience, and compromise. Currently, our siblings in Christ, whose identity, beloved of God, is not enough to redeem them for full inclusion, stand, as Howard Thurman said of the disinherited, with “their backs against the wall.” The question for us is this, do we stand with them with our backs against the wall, or do we turn away. I’m bold enough to proclaim this: I know where Jesus would stand. I think you are bold enough, too. Beloved, let us love one another as God has loved us. Let us stand with Jesus, our backs against the wall, love our enemies, and do good to those who persecute us.
[i] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976), 91-92.
[ii] Ibid., 93.
[iii] Ibid., 93.
[iv] Ibid., 93.
[v] Ibid., 93-94.
[vi] Ibid., 95.
[vii] Ibid., 101.