Sermon by The Rev. Patrick J. Wingo, February 24, 2019 (re-recording)
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Sermon for Epiphany 7C 2-24-19 CAK The Rev Patrick J Wingo
Jesus said, Love your enemies.
What is an enemy?
When I think about how my understanding of enemies were formed as a child, I think about Wile. E. Coyote as the Road Runner’s enemy.
Or, since I was a child of the Cold War, how I learned that the USSR was the clear enemy of my country.
Or, as I got a little older, how my coach might have portrayed the other team when he was firing us up before a game.
It’s pretty easy to find the origin of the word “enemy.”
It comes from the Latin “in amicus” or “not friend.”
Your enemy is not your friend.
Well, I could have told anyone that when I was five years old and saw the Coyote trying to drop an anvil on the Road Runner’s head.
But enemies became harder to understand as I got older, because the reality is that there are some people in our lives, people whom we may call our friends who don’t at all act like it.
Those who are critical of your every move.
Those who may not support you as you try to live in healthier ways.
Those who gossip about you to other friends.
For some people this even extends to family.
Think about the Joseph saga in our Old Testament lesson for today.
What if your brother wasn’t your friend because you were your dad’s favorite?
What if you had a different mother than your brother, and it was clear that your dad liked the children that your mom had better than the children of his first wife?
Maybe he liked you so much he gave you, and only you, some expensive clothes, and your brothers got really jealous.
And what if all your brothers were mad at you because you had these amazing dreams, and all you wanted to do was tell them about the pictures in your head, but they thought you were a little smarty-pants because in your dreams you were the ruler over them, even though they were older than you?
And what if your brothers got so mad at you that they planned to do away with you, and they did just that, and then lied to your father, broke his heart, in fact, when they told him that you had been killed by a lion, when really they sold you as a slave and you ended up in another country?
‘Inimicus.’ Not friend.
My brother is not my friend.
It is interesting that in all the characters in the book of Genesis, Joseph gets far more attention than anyone.
The Joseph saga plays out in chapters 37-50 of Genesis, and while part of the intent of the story is to tell how the Israelites ended up in Egypt, there is far more here about how God puts the man who was wronged into a position to forgive, so that acts that were meant for evil came to be used for God’s purposes.
The part of the story we hear is after Joseph has been through tremendous danger and suffering, but has risen to be the right-hand-man to Pharaoh, after he correctly interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams.
Joseph has great power in Egypt, and his position has allowed him to save the country from a terrible famine.
Joseph’s brothers travel to Egypt looking for food, and they are granted an audience with this powerful ruler, second only to Pharaoh.
It’s been twenty years, and they don’t recognize the brother they sold into slavery.
But Joseph recognizes them.
And in that moment he truly did have ultimate power.
He could have had them thrown into prison, he could have had them killed, he could have done anything he wanted.
He had every reason to see them as his enemy, ‘inimicus,’
My brother is not my friend.
But he chose differently.
Joseph invites his brothers to come closer to him.
He kissed his brothers and, Genesis tells us, “wept upon them,” or in other words, made himself vulnerable to the ones who had done him great harm.
Who does that sound like?
Who does that remind you of?
The one who said this from the cross: “Father forgive them, for they do not know what the are doing.”
Where was the rage at the injustice?
Where was the lashing out at the religious zealots for making him a scapegoat?
Where was the bitterness at a life that was ended too soon, a mission that seemed unfinished?
Where was the anger at the friends who ran away from him when he needed them most?
Maybe it was all there, even for Jesus, but it was all swept up in the love of God.
Love, you see, is a verb.
Jesus said, love your enemies, and the way that is lived out is the opposite of many cultural ideas of love.
Sometimes we have these notions of love that you might get from listening to a Beatles song: “All you need is love, all you need is love, all you need is love, love is all you need.”
But love that comes from God is a love that is active, a love that makes something happen, a love that seeks to transform the impulse to retaliation or the deepening of enmity.
“Love your enemies” probably will never make it to the top of the pop charts.
But here’s what it will do: if we take Jesus’ words to heart, if, like Joseph, we make ourselves so open, so vulnerable that hate has not a place in our lives, we will be transformed into people who do not judge, people who do not condemn, people who are open to the kind of vulnerability that is required to understand and practice forgiveness.
Church of the Ascension is a community.
We have ideals that come from beyond ourselves, that were established by a Jewish carpenter and rabbi a couple of thousand years ago.
Because we also live in wider communities, our ideals are influenced and sometimes assaulted by ideals that conflict with our own.
So the idea of loving our enemies is hard for us.
Our default model is to defeat our enemies, drop an anvil on their heads.
Praying for those who are abusive feels impossible to me.
Blessing the guy who made an obscene gesture to me on the interstate the other day was, in that moment, beyond me.
In English we really only have one word to try and get across numerous ways to love.
The Greeks had more to draw on, and so the attraction of friends toward one another is the word phileo, or where we get the word Philadelphia;
the lustful, or possessive kind of love is Eros—the Greek idea of Eros is not necessarily bad, but this is the one that can most quickly turn dark.
Stergo is the feeling of affection between, for example, a mother and a child—or, as an old Polish proverb put it, “The greatest love is a mother’s; then a dog’s; then a sweetheart’s.”
Most ideas of love that we see in our world are these three forms of love.
When the early Christians were trying to express in the language of the empire the kind of love they experienced in Jesus, they turned to a different word.
Agapeo, or a generous act for the sake of another.
It was actually a somewhat rare word in Koine Greek, but Christians found that it perfectly described the kind of love that Jesus embodied.
Do you see the difference?
Phileo is brotherly love, or love of family;
Eros is possessive love;
stergos is natural affection.
They are all feeling words.
But Agape love is the one that calls for action, and the earliest Christians realized that this was what they had been transformed by, and filled with.
What did 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; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.
Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
It’s the verbs that matter—love; do good; bless; pray; offer; do not withhold; give;
Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Church of the Ascension is a community full of fragile people, all of us, just like the early Christians.
What will our verbs be?
This is not easy at all, and the default modes of the world are to give up, or dig in, or choose sides, or make it a win-lose proposition.
But that’s not what it’s like in the Kingdom of God.
Some in our community are hurting.
Yet God has put us in a position to forgive.
What will be your verb?
Why is someone your enemy, your inimicus?
How will you be transformed by, and into agape?
The biblical story is clear:
God has given us grace and the power of the Holy Spirit that makes forgiveness and love possible.
The agape, the action, is up to us.