Leviticus 19:1–2, 9–18 Matthew 5:38–48 Russell Eidmann-Hicks
How can we possibly love those who hurt us, reject us, shame us? How can we open our hearts or forgive those who have been nothing but cold and cruel, hard and mean? Jesus sets a very high bar for us today.
About two weeks ago, we got a call in the church office from a man named Wayne, who said that he needed help with a car ride. We get a number of calls from people asking for assistance, and need to sort out which are legitimate and which are scams. I called Wayne back and talked with him and ended up driving him from a motel on Rte 35 in Middletown to one on Rte 9 in Marlboro, so that he could catch a bus back home to Los Angeles, CA. Here’s his story: He suffers from AIDS in a severe way. When I met him he looked like a walking skeleton, sunken cheeks, extremely thin and frail. He said that if anyone thinks that AIDS is not deadly, doesn’t know the disease, in spite of the medicines that prolong life. His partner died about a year before, and Wayne knew he needed help, and wanted to say good-bye to his family. So he travelled to Maine, where they live, and hoped for a kind reunion. What he didn’t realize was that his family had been converted by a follower of the Westboro Baptist Church. You may have heard of them: they are fanatically anti-gay and believe that God is judging America harshly because of its tolerance of them. They show up a funerals of veterans – of all kinds – with huge signs reading: “God Hates Fags.” (sorry for the language.)
When he arrived, he said his family met him with abuse and hatred. They screamed at him, and physically threw him out of the house – without his bags or his wallet. He was forced to hitch-hike south, looking for help. Somehow he ended up in Jersey Shore Medical after collapsing, and the social workers there found him a motel room and a bus back. But he needed a ride.
What convinced me to help him was when he said, “I figured if my own family rejected me, I could reach out to my church family.” He is a member of a UCC church on Laguna Beach, CA.
How can Wayne possibly follow Jesus’ call in our reading today to love his enemies, those who persecute and reject him? How can he find healing in the midst of hatred and abuse? We are being asked a terribly difficult thing by our Savior, but perhaps this is one of Jesus’ most profound and powerful lessons to us and to the world. Listen to another story that illustrates this.
These are the words of Detective Stephen McDonald, a NYC policeman. His nephew was volunteering at our church two months ago, but had to leave suddenly to attend his uncle’s funeral that was held in St. Patrick’s Cathedral surrounded by a sea of blue uniforms. Here are his words:
I am a New York City Police Officer. On July 12, 1986, I was on patrol in Central Park and stopped to question three teenagers. While I was questioning them, the oldest, a fifteen-year-old, took out a gun and shot me in the head and neck. Thanks to the quick action of my fellow police officers, I was rushed to a hospital. A few days later, once it became clear I was going to survive, a surgeon came into my room and told my wife, Patti Ann, and me that I would be paralyzed from the neck down for the rest of my life. He told my wife I would need to be institutionalized. I was married just eight months, and my wife, twenty-three years old, was three months pregnant. Patti Ann was crying uncontrollably at the cards she had been dealt, and I cried too. I was locked in my body, unable to move or to reach out to her.
Our faith suddenly became very important to us: the Catholic mass, prayers, our need for God. It was God’s love that put me back together. And it came from many different corners. Christians of every orientation, Jews, Muslims, and people of no faith at all were rooting for me.
A week after I was shot, the media asked to speak to my wife. Though still in shock, Patti Ann bravely told everybody that she would trust God to do what was best for her family. That set the tone not only for my recovery but also for the rest of our lives. When things like this happen, people sometimes distance themselves from God. Patti Ann taught me that you don’t do that. You trust God. She trusted, and here I am.
I spent the next eighteen months in the hospital. While I was there my wife gave birth to our son, Conor. At his baptism I told everyone I forgave the young teen who shot me. I wanted to free myself of all the negative, destructive emotions that this act of violence awoke in me – the anger, the bitterness, the hatred. I needed to free myself of those so I could be free to love my wife and our child and those around us.
I often tell people that the only thing worse than a bullet in my spine would have been to nurture revenge in my heart. Such an attitude would have extended my tragic injury into my soul, hurting my wife, son, and others even more. It is bad enough that the physical effects are permanent, but at least I can choose to prevent spiritual injury.
A year or two later, Shavod Jones, the young man who shot me, called my home from prison and apologized to my wife, my son, and me. I told him that I hoped he and I could work together sometime in the future. I hoped that we would travel around the country together to share our different understandings of that act of violence that changed both our lives, and the understanding it gave us about what is most important in life. In 1995, Shavod was released from prison. Three days later, he died in a motorcycle accident. But Shavod Jones is with me wherever my story is told. We have helped many people, the two of us.
In order to love our enemies – we need to first let go – empty ourselves – allow the hurt to wash away – to release the hatred, negativity and rage that eat away at our souls. As Detective McDonald said: “I often tell people that the only thing worse than a bullet in my spine would have been to nurture revenge in my heart.” This is about letting go of the poison of resentment and fury. This release is an opening of the heart. It allows us to be human, alive again, and ready to welcome life again. This is why so many admire this man. This is how God calls us to live, ready to open to God’s presence, open to what life brings us, open to the wonders and beauty of this glorious existence, even if it is from a wheelchair. Forgiveness is a doorway back into this world. Like prayer, like meditation, like calm awareness, it allows our eyes to clear so that we can see things as they are – in their truth and simplicity and joy.
I’m not saying that we should just become doormats or punching bags to evil people. No. We need to protect ourselves and be smart. Jesus says that we need to be ‘wise as serpents and innocent as doves,’ meaning we need to know when to be open and when to protect ourselves. But what Jesus does say is that we need to be ready to be ‘innocent as doves,’ along with being serpents. Otherwise we’re serpents all the time. We can conquer through a third way: not just fight or flight – but by engaging our enemies, seeking to transform them into those who will know and respect us as persons. He encourages his followers to turn the other cheek so that the one striking them will have to look them in the eyes. Jesus teaches strong caring, resistance through love, transformation through openness. Too often in our day – all we hear about is suspicion, defensiveness, anger and cynicism – meaning living like serpents. Jesus is asking us to try acting like doves too – being willing to give people a second chance, the benefit of the doubt. His disciples asked him how often they should be willing to forgive someone – up to seven times? No, Jesus replies, seven times seventy times. Forgive continuously – strive to be open. Then we can create communities of understanding and mutual respect.
Pope Francis wrote this: “Where does Jesus send us? There are no borders, no limits: he sends us to everyone. The gospel is for everyone, not just for some. It is not only for those who seem closer to us, more receptive, more welcoming. It is for everyone. Do not be afraid to go and to bring Christ into every area of life, to the fringes of society, even to those who seem farthest away, most indifferent. The Lord seeks all – Christ wants everyone to feel the warmth of his mercy and his love.”
That’s a very tall order. ‘Everyone’ does not mean just the ones we feel close to, whom we like and trust. It also means the suspect, the stranger, the other, the upsetting, the different, and those we don’t quite trust. I heard recently from Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, former head rabbi for Great Britain. He said the Hebrew Bible only uses the words “love your neighbor as yourself” one time in Leviticus. Jesus quotes this as the essence of the law. But Rabbi Sachs says that the words “love the stranger” 36 times. 36 times we hear God say to love those who are foreigners, outsiders, because the people of Israel were strangers in Egypt, and strangers need help.
We live in a time of mistrust of foreigners and fear of enemies – with finger-pointing, scapegoating, and labeling of strangers and foes: right or left, foreigners, refugees, immigrants, brown or beige, the disabled, the LGBTQ community and others. As followers of Jesus it would be wise of us to step back, to take a deep breath, and then to seek to look those we fear in the eyes. We don’t have to retaliate and hurt back. There are few absolutely evil people in the world – except in the movies or on TV or in dangerous forms of religion or politics. When we let go of fear or judgment, we most often see another person – not a monster. We discover a shared humanity. Then we are able to find common ground and understanding – and maybe even laughter. We let go of anxiety and suspicion and find the peace of God that passes all human understanding. We discover the Kingdom of God.
So like Detective McDonald we are called to release our desire for revenge, for continuous hatred and a thirst for violence. Then, perhaps, we can transform an enemy into a friend. Then, perhaps, we can heal our souls of the wounds of hatred, fear, and cold-heartedness. Then, perhaps, we can release our defensiveness and hate to be free and strong enough to love.
You may have seen this on the news. At some of the funerals which members of the Westboro Baptist Church have disrupted, a group of counter demonstrators have gathered – dressed in angel costumes with enormous white wings. Between the mourners and families at the funeral, the angels take their place, and unfurl their wings to shield them from the hatred. They do this with great dignity and with silent respect. I think this is what Jesus asks of us – to engage in creative peacemaking, to confront hatred and intolerance with respect and with love.
This kind of openness of heart – is also what allows us to be generous, to give to others, even when they do not give back to us. In this season, we are being asked to give from the heart – to offer a gift of generous sustenance for our church and the world. We experience this same kind of generosity when we offer forgiveness, grace, and friendship. When we give from the heart we walk with Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.