Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Hardest Commandment

This is the manuscript that I used for my sermon at Truett. There is a video, but since I can't even psych myself up enough to watch it, I definitely don't think I can share it!

On October 2, 2006 Charles Roberts IV arrived at the Amish one-room school house in West Nickel Mines School in Pennsylvania. He had been to this community multiple times delivering milk to the families. However, this time, he had a very different agenda in mind. At 10:30 am, he entered the school house and took 10 girls, ages 6 to 13, hostage. Within 20 minutes of holding them against their will, he had shot 8 out of the 10 of them. Five of the girls ended up dying shortly after Charles Roberts took his own life. Wouldn’t you agree that Charles Roberts IV is the definition of an enemy to this small Amish community? As Christians, how are we to respond to a situation like this? I know that my natural instinct is not what scripture tells us to do. Let’s look at Matthew 5, verses 43 through 48. Before we turn there, let me give you a warning. What The Lord commands us to do with our enemies is most likely not what we want to do; especially when the enemies are pretty intense like the one in this story.
Key text: 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[a] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Background to text: Before looking at what this text is telling us, it’s important to look at what is happening in the bigger picture. If we didn’t look at the context of the passage, it would be like watching just the 4th quarter of a football game. That would be no fun, right? For all you Baylor fans out there, imagine if you had only watched the 4th quarter of the Cotton Bowl in 2013. You would not have gotten the whole picture and you would think Baylor football was the worst. Which, ya know, right now might be true. But in 2013 it wasn’t. This passage on loving your enemies comes at the very end of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has gathered his disciples on a mountainside in Galilee. He talks about issues like divorce, adultery, oaths, and retaliation. With every topic, He takes something that society is telling His disciples and turns it on its head. There’s a pattern of “it is said...but…” throughout this chapter. At the beginning of this passage, he says, “It is said, love your neighbor and hate your enemy” and then tells his disciples the opposite. This specific passage is drawn from Leviticus 19:18 which states basically the same thing. It says, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” So even though society is telling the disciples one thing, The Lord is telling them to do otherwise. One scholar even argues that in this context, neighbor means a fellow Jew and an enemy would be a Gentile. This makes sense because those two people groups typically were not the best of friends. So what are we supposed to do with this? Who is our enemy? And why does Jesus insist that we love them? Wouldn’t it be easier to just ignore them and move on with life?
Point 1: What do yall think of when someone says enemy? I like to think that I’m a pretty easy going and likeable person but I can still think of a few enemies. However, I think of enemies on different levels. We’ve all been stuck behind the person in the express line at HEB that actually has about 30 items. Is that my enemy? Or the friend that said horrible things about me in high school. Are they my enemy? What about the men that flew the planes into the towers on September 11th. They’re my enemy, right? One scholar breaks down the word “enemy” and says that there are two kinds. The first is “echthros” and this is a personal enemy; someone that has wronged you and hurt you as an individual. For instance, one of my good friends has a boss that is not very nice to her. She belittles my friend every chance she gets and just is not very kind to her. Technically, she would also be my enemy because no one messes with my friends! My friend’s boss would be an example of echthros; a personal enemy. Then, there is Polemios which is an enemy of the state but one that still affects you personally. ISIS would be the perfect example for this type of enemy. ISIS is an enemy to Americans and the group is my enemy even though they have never done anything to personal harm me. So we all have enemies whether they are echthros or polemios. Yall can think of some, right? I know I can. Now what are we supposed to do with this? Now that we’ve all identified those people, what are we supposed to do with them? Wouldn’t it be great to just recognize our enemies and that was all? It would be easier for sure.
Friends, I’m gonna be really honest with you for a second and you can’t hold it against me. I did not want to preach this sermon. When I decided to preach on this passage, I was okay with it. I welcomed it, even! I like to think that I’m a pretty loving person so I can speak on loving other people, right? But then life happened. I work with abuse victims and we’ve had really awful cases lately. I hear stories about my clients being severely abused by men that honestly, I have no respect for. And this passage is telling me to love and pray for those that abused my clients? As Americans, we experienced the most tense and aggravating election season. I’m supposed to love and pray for politicians that I don’t respect? I’m supposed to love those that said awful things to me because we have different beliefs. Or! People are supposed to love me after I said things that I shouldn’t have? I felt like a toddler stomping my feet and bawling up my fists while screaming “I DON’T WANNA!!!” It’s a heck of a lot easier to just erase that person from my life or make an ugly face whenever I think about them. What this passage is telling us to do isn’t easy, isn’t fun, and isn’t natural.  But that’s exactly why it’s necessary. It’s necessary because we don’t want to do it and without Christ living within us, we simply won’t do it. See, the thing is, we don’t love and pray for these enemies because we want them to change their behavior towards us. I think when people hear “love your enemies” it’s because they expect the enemy’s actions to change. But that’s not the case. We love them and pray for them because we are the ones that need to change. We need Christ to soften our hearts towards the ones that have wronged us. Remember my friend’s boss that I said was always rude to her? My friend called me on Thanksgiving Day and we were talking about how things were going. She said that her boss had had hand surgery and had no family nearby so my friend was going to take a plate of food to her so she could still enjoy Thanksgiving. This woman, who is hateful to my friend all the time, was getting food delivered to her from my friend, who is the recipient of hateful words and actions. Apparently my friend is a better person than I am because I was floored. I asked her, “she has never been nice to you. Literally ever. Why are you so nice to her?” Yall, I was so impressed with her response. She said, “Erin, what good is it if I’m mean to her? What will that accomplish? At least if I’m nice to her, then maybe she’ll get a glimpse of Christ. If not, then oh well.” She’s living out exactly what this scripture is telling us to do.
Point 2: This passage is also not just an individual calling, but a communal one. All believers are part of the Kingdom of God. We are walking representations of Christ at all times. And lets be real, we usually fall way short. What are we saying if we treat our enemies horribly mean? We have to love our enemies in order to overcome the evil in the world. Imagine what the world would be like if every single Christ follower followed these verses.  Myself included, obviously. It would change the world! We cannot let the evilness of the world overcome us. Maybe I’m just dramatic, but I feel like that is so easy to do in today’s world. The world gives you more than enough reasons to be overwhelmed. This past weekend, I was reading an article about Fidel Castro dying and pubic figure’s responses to his death. Most people, like politicians Donald Trump and Marco Rubio, rejoiced at his death. There was only one person that I could find that had a compassionate response to his death and do you know who it was? Pope Francis! Pope Francis tweeted (because the Pope is super cool and tweets) and said that he was praying for Fidel Castro and his family. He was doing word for word what this scripture is telling us. He was praying for them when no one wanted to pray for them. We all know that Castro wasn’t the best person by any means and could very easily be described as an enemy. Yet we are called to pray anyways. Jesus is telling us that we need to love our enemy so that evil, which is everywhere around us, doesn’t overcome us. More than that, He is telling us that we have to overcome that evil by doing good to our enemies. This “love” that He is telling his disciples about doesn’t just mean praying for his enemies; it means loving in a concrete way. Turn to Romans 12:20 with me real quick. It states, “Instead, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” This is loving them in a concrete way that overcomes the evilness.
I was reading a story about John and Deborah Upton who were missionaries to Taiwan. After completing their language training, they settled in the small city of Taitung to establish a congregation there.
Predictably, their intention to begin a church in the city threatened the local Buddhist priest who resolved to drive them away. Every morning promptly at seven o'clock the priest stationed himself at the front gate of the Upton's house where—for ten hours a day, seven days a week—he shouted curses and incantations against the house itself; he set off strings of firecrackers; he warned the neighbors not to show kindness toward the Uptons lest they anger the gods and bring tragedy to their own homes.
The noise was unnerving; the paper residue from the firecrackers grew so deep that John had to shovel it aside before he could move his car out of the driveway. The possibility of growing a church in such soil seemed bleak.
What were the missionaries to do in the face of such a threat? John and Deborah felt that they had to respond in some way, and this is what they did: Every morning before the priest arrived, they took a stool and a table out to the gate. On the table they placed a pot of tea and a bowl of rice; they set up an umbrella to shade the priest from the sun. They continued this routine for almost four months, until one day the priest did not show up. From that day on, never again were they harassed, and their home became a gathering place for the community.
The Uptons later learned that their neighbors had finally intervened on their behalf, telling the priest, "Here you are cursing their home and the foreigners are giving you something to eat. That's embarrassing. Go away and leave them alone." They loved their enemy in a very concrete way. He was a threat to their livelihood every single day yet they loved him in a very concrete way.
Point 3: Let’s look at the end of the passage now. Verse 48 states “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.” Yall, the first time I read this, I mentally checked out. I thought “how the heck am I supposed to be perfect like God? It’s God!! I don’t think I can do that. Maybe I’ll just leave on that last verse.” However, in this case, perfection simply means “resemblance to God.” “To have all parts, to have reached full maturity or the desired end.” This last verse isn’t telling us to be sinless like God is sinless. It’s telling us to have the same character that He has. We are to emulate Him. Especially when interacting with other people like our enemies. God was telling this to the disciples so they had something to strive for, not necessarily something that will ever fully achieve in life. I worked at a tennis camp for a few summers. When I was working with the kids, I would tell them that they should try and copy Roger Federer. Did I honestly think that a bunch of 6 year old kids would hit like Roger Federer? Of course not! But it gave them something to picture in their head. They could picture his strides and serve while they played in order for them to hit just like that. In the same way, Jesus was telling his disciples to think of God and try and emulate him. When they were interacting with people in the various towns, they should remember how God loves his people and cares for them. Then they should copy that. The word “perfect” was only used one other time in Matthew and that was when Jesus tells the man to sell everything he has, be perfect, and to follow Christ. I think the fact that this verse is at the end of the book is worth noting. It serves as a challenge. A challenge to love as God loves. A love where partiality does not exist. A love that doesn’t depend on skin color, doesn’t depend on gender, doesn’t depend on poverty level, doesn’t depend on religion. A love that doesn’t depend on someone’s actions towards us. A love that simple exists because God calls us to love his people like he loves his people. Friends, that isn’t easy by any means. We’re humans. We want to cast someone aside when they wrong us. But when we stop loving our enemies, we forget that they are humans just like we are.
Conclusion: I know yall are just waiting on pins and needles to learn how the Amish community responded to the gunman killing five of their children. I know if that had been me, there would have been a lot of anger, bitterness, and hatred within my heart and it would’ve taken a very long time to move past that. The Amish community had the exact opposite reaction. On the same day of the shooting, a member of the community said, “I don't think there's anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts.” Yall, that was on the SAME day as the shooting. Only a few hours after the shooting, the Amish community visited the gunman’s family and grieved with them. One man even held the gunman’s father for an hour while he sobbed. They also set up a charitable fund for the family of the shooter. They attended his funeral. Does this just blow your mind like it does mine?! They are giving us the perfect example of what this passage I telling us. They are praying for their enemy. An enemy that most would say is unforgiveable. They are loving in a very concrete way and they are doing it as a community. Surrounding the shooters family with love and support. And most importantly, they are emulating Jesus in their words, actions, and thoughts. It is said “to return evil for good is devilish; to return good for good is human; to return good for evil is divine.” As we leave here today, I want to challenge you. Each and every one of us has an enemy. Whether it’s a large scale enemy or a personal enemy, it is still a person associated with bitterness and anger in your heart. Pray for them. And pray for your own heart. That Christ would soften your heart towards them while also drawing their heart towards Him.  Who is it that you can pray start praying for today? And what is a tangible way that you can show Christ’s love to them? Let us pray.
Prayer: Dear Heavenly Father, we thank you for this time together this morning. I think you for the people in this room and everything that they have added to my life. Lord, I pray that you would soften my heart towards those that I declare as my enemies. I pray that you would put people in my path to remind me that above all else, I am to represent you in my thoughts, actions, and words. I pray that you give me ways to love these people just like you love all of your children. Amen.

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