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.
At the end of last week’s service, we pulled selected from the Grab Bag a request to hear a sermon on the topic: “How do we get outside of our ideological bubbles?” Hmmm . . . I guess this leads to other questions: What are our bubbles? Do we really want to get outside of them? We find comfort and affirmation in those bubbles. Social media algorithms keep us there as does dogma and simplicity. And yet, we know that this narrow understanding or worldview contributes to our ignorance and/or arrogance. Maybe that’s what Jesus was getting at when he said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” By definition that is bubble-breaking work. So is international travel, antiracism work, and learning another language. I said as much this week in the UBC email that I sent last Monday. I asked people to give me insight and suggestions on this subject. I heard nothing. Nada. Zip. Which means that you trust me and want to hear what I have to say. You don’t care. Or you just didn’t read the email. I’ll take door number one. I always like to think the best of people.
We like our ideological bubbles. They help us make sense of the world. They provide us comfort. They remind us that we are good and they are by extension evil. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that 11am on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. It’s because we want to be with our own culture, our own family, our own tribe, our own sense of right and wrong. And that’s a good thing. Trusted friends help us out. Trusted people need us as much as we need them. Do we really want to be outside of our ideological bubbles? Our ideological bubbles help us discern right from wrong, good from evil, even truth and falsehood. And it keeps our assumptions predictable.
Maybe we want other people to change and be more like us. We want them to have our worldview. We want them to make the same vaccination decisions, vote for the better candidate in elections, which of course is ours. We want people to consume better news and we want everyone to get along.
But that’s not what we see. We see people getting further entrenched. We see fear of the other being invoked and provoked. And bipartisanship is seen as weakness. I don’t know about you, but come election season, I don’t want to know for whom others are voting. Well, that’s not completely true. I get a small thrill when I see someone with a sign similar to the one in my yard. But if someone has a sign of a different, say presidential candidate, I find myself sad and disappointed. I assume that they have been brainwashed and I really liked them as neighbors before I saw that sign.
I know it’s not good for my emotional, spiritual, and even physical health, but I go there.
Maybe that’s why Jesus chose this pesky little scripture to be the culmination of his sermon on the Mount.
The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ reformation sermon. He uses a Jewish midrash technique to engage in scripture. You know the old saying, “If you haven’t argued scripture then you haven’t engaged with it.” Jesus uses the sermon to challenge the way people understood scripture and the way they understand their lives.
In Matthew 5, Jesus holds up Jewish truisms and puts them on their head with the formula: You have heard it said and but I say to you.
You shall not murder, but I say to you don’t even be angry with your kinfolk.
You shall not commit adultery, but I say to you don’t even have lust in your hearts. You shall not divorce, you shall not lie.
You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you do not resist the evildoer with violence.
It’s his attempt to remind the people to focus not so much on the old rulebook understanding of the Bible. It’s his way of saying, “Let’s look at the big picture.” And guess what is right at the apex. You have heard it said, love your friends and hate your enemies, but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Dang. That’s some harsh reality there. We’re used to criticizing our enemies. Fearing our enemies. Fighting our enemies. But love our enemies. Even when they have the wrong signs in their yard?
Imagine if we were writing a midrash today. What would we say?
You have heard it said take the land and possess it. But I say to you be ye stewards of the land and its original inhabitants.
You have heard it said women shall be silent in church, but I say to you listen to the wisdom of the sages amongst you regardless of gender.
You have heard it said that the curse of Ham is eternal and the basis for white rule. But I say to you that race is a human construct and God made a kaleidoscope, a rainbow of people. Honor them all.
You have heard it said homosexuality is an abomination, but I say to you love in all its forms is blessed and sacred.
You have heard it said that all religion is suspect, evil and oppressive, but I say to you to seek out the breakthrough of God for the liberation of all people that is at the heart of true faithfulness.
You have heard it said, Love your friends and hate your enemies. But I say to you, love better. Don’t just love conveniently, politically. But love bravely. Love audaciously. Love even when the stakes are high . . . because the stakes are high. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
This is a tall order and yet it is central to God’s overarching plan. You see, in the old days when they were at war, it was practical to love your friends. Not just like them but to really love your friends. That meant looking out for them and making sure that they were healthy and safe. Listen to them. Hold them fast when they are hurting. Support them and protect them from foes hear and far.
Now this “hate your enemies” thing was probably a reference in scripture to a specific instance in a wartime situation. But the problem was that it became universalized so that the Biblical understanding of the world became one where there are insiders and outsiders.
If there are always enemies out there, then we are never safe—especially if we ventured outside of our ideological bubbles. Jesus wants us to be better than that. If we are to truly survive as a people we need to transform our enemies into friends. And the first step is to love them in spite of themselves. That’s the harder work and it’s the kind of reform that Jesus was about.
Back in the 1960s a southern Baptist intellectual named Will Campbell set out to live by Jesus’ admonition. He chose to tread outside of his bubble. This white southerner interested in civil rights started to go to Klan meetings. He didn’t go there to denounce them. He went there to try to understand them. While he found their views repugnant, he also recognized that they were often poor, and scared and felt that their world was crumbling around them. Turns out that the people they were so against were in the same boat. And because he got to know them, eventually he was able to persuade many of them to renounce racism. He succeeded because he dared to go outside his ideological bubble.
There was a great Doonesbury comic in today’s paper. Clergyman Scot Sloan is talking with his buddies. Scot says “I overheard something outside the rectory today. People were reading the church sign where I post the sermon topic and the scripture that inspired it. Today’s was Deuteronomy 15:11 ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, and the needy and to the poor in your land.’” Scot continues and says “So the guy points to the church and says, ‘Liberal grooming center.’ BD, his conservative friend says, “Sounds about right.”
What if religious people reclaim their moral center. What if we didn’t build walls, but tore them down? What if we didn’t demonize people who disagree, but creatively found ways to be someone that someone else trusts to always tell the truth in love.
The culmination of the fourteen reversals in the Sermon on the Mount is this statement, “You have heard it said, ‘Love your friends and hate your enemies.’ But I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Love right. Love in a way that is redemptive.” And here’s the real kicker, love someone regardless of what they do, how they react, or how evil they act. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Pray for them. Not the manipulative prayer that they will be punished or that calamity will befall them. But pray for their well-being. It may not change them, but it will change you. And that’s the important thing. Gandhi said that when you embrace this kind of lifestyle, it will incite ridicule and persecution for a while but since it has moral backing, it can’t help but win in the long run. He said, “First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. Then they fight against you. Then you win.” You win because as Martin Luther King said, “The arc of history is long but it bends toward justice.”
I’m struck by a story that came up in The Book of Joy, which documents a week of conversation between Bishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. One story the Dalai Lama tells to illustrate the Buddhist concept of “compassion for all sentient beings” starts the night the Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet. The Chinese army was approaching and thousands of Tibetans had rallied to surround the Dalai Lama’s palace. Fearing they would all risk death to protect him, he secretly left in disguise that night with a very small group of advisors. One of his elder advisors, a favorite, remained and was arrested by the Chinese and sentenced to sixteen years of hard labor. He served that term, with no winter clothing provided, no heat, very little food or water and no relief from the heat of summer. He was dressed in rags. Almost every day he was interrogated and he was frequently tortured or physically abused by the Chinese.
Upon completion of his sentence, he was released he eventually made his way to India, where the Dalai Lama lived. When they finally met again they embraced and sat down for a talk. The Dalai Lama said, “You must have often feared for your life.” “Oh, I was afraid every day, but what I was most afraid of was losing my compassion for my captors.”
You have heard it said, love your friends and hate your enemies, but I say to you, venture out of your bubbles. Engage your enemies, not with fists but with love. Pray for those who persecute you. Be better than the world. Act in such a way that we will reimagine our very lives, our very priorities. This is radical work. It’s redemptive work. It’s brave work. It’s hard work. It’s bubble-breaking work. And while it will not be easy or quick, it is the Jesus way.
Let me close with one of my very favorite poems, Wendell Berry’s Manifesto: “The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”:
Love the quick profit, the annual raise, vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something they will call you. When they want you to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute. Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor. Love someone who does not deserve it. Denounce the government and embrace the flag. Hope to live in that free republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot understand. Praise ignorance, for what man has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias. Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold. Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful though you have considered all the facts. So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men. Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos can predict the motions of your mind, lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction.