Rev. Sarah Buteux
February 20, 2022
Epiphany 7, Year C
To view this morning’s service click here. The sermon begins at the 34 minute mark.
If you want to know who your enemies are, it might help to consider your heroes. I don’t think of myself as someone who has personal enemies out there – like, an arch nemesis in the vein of say Nellie Oleson or Rachel Lynde, Sauron or Thanos, Moriarty or “he who must not be named”… you know… (Voldemort).
But I sure do have heroes, men and women I love to listen to and follow like Roxanne Gay and Stephen Colbert, Aubrey Gordon and Michael Hobbs, the late Rachel Held Evans, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Brene Brown, our own Dan Miller and Bradley Onishi, and of course the deep bench of Op Ed writers at the New York Times who – God help me – I will be fasting from come Lent.
I like my heroes whip smart and disarmingly funny with just enough snark to make the take down sting. I admire anyone who can sniff out hypocrisy, dismantle a faulty argument with alacrity, and deflate all the pompous blowhards out there with wit and flair; at least all the pompous blowhards I happen to disagree with.
Which means that whether I know them personally or not, I guess I do have enemies – and maybe you do, too – people who propagate opinions and ideas I find dangerous and misguided, sometimes even abhorrent.
And please don’t tell Jesus, but few things make me happier than watching those people get caught out, proven wrong, publicly humiliated… or fired…or indicted, thanks to the words of someone I happen to agree with.
So had I been touring back in 2018 with “Common Good” – a group of Christians who were criss-crossing the country in an old Guns & Roses tour bus in an effort to convince conservative white evangelicals that voting Republican wasn’t the only option for followers of Jesus – I would have been relieved and a little excited when John Pavlovitz took the stage.
If that name sounds familiar to you, it’s because we read John’s devotional, “Low,” for Advent back in 2020. John is a progressive pastor, prolific writer, and avid blogger who I’ve quoted before from this very pulpit. And the title of his most recent book, “If God is Love Don’t be a Jerk,” pretty much sums up what I love about him.
In fact, “if God is love, don’t be a jerk,” might also be the best summation of the scripture passage before us this morning. I could just stop here… if it weren’t so hard to not be a jerk in the face of people who seem determined to be as jerky as a roadside quicky mart Sonic Chili Cheese Slim Jim. AMIRIGHT?
Well, John himself found this out the hard way the last night of the Common Good tour. In chapter 15, aptly named, “Love Your Damned Neighbor,” he writes:
Our closing… rally was… in the parking lot of a Fresno, California church. A couple of days before we arrived, rumors began circulating that we’d be visited by the Proud Boys…We’d been warned (this might happen) several times before in different cities…but they’d always failed to materialize, so as night fell it seemed the same would hold true (in Fresno).
(But then) as I stood to the side of (the) stage taking in the scene, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a small cluster of people, illuminated by cameras and phones, emerging from the darkened periphery of the parking lot and walking until they reached the last row of chairs…The group began quietly at first, then steadily grew louder, laughing sarcastically and yelling over our speakers while waving signs and live-streaming the event to their followers…
I could feel my blood pressure rising and my face getting hot as I prepared to speak. I milled around the uninvited instigators and grew more concerned for my friend Kristy, who was trying to politely speak over their more frequent and fervent interruption. When she finished…I made my way up and took the platform, already fully enraged, adrenaline coursing wildly through me like a mid-hulk-out Bruce Banner – and since I’d decided that velocity and volume were my best defenses, I grabbed the microphone tightly and proceeded to shout loudly and without pause…
Like a sweaty, deranged, pissed off auctioneer, I breathlessly fired off rapid, raw throated verbal grenades about the gentle and expansive love of a peace-making Jesus…
I screamed until my throat was raw, while simultaneously hoping for God to send a swift wind to evict the (Proud Boys) from (Fresno) County.
The irony was not lost on me. When I finished my final…salvo, I hurried off the stage and stood behind the tour bus, feeling like I’d succeeded only in being louder and ruder than they were – and (admits John) that didn’t feel like much of a victory (at all).
Anyone else ever been there? Maybe not licking your wounds behind an old tour bus in Fresno, but perhaps filled with bitter regret after a shouting match where the fact that you were louder and righter only made your opponent angrier and wronger? I sure have.
So take a look with me at those first few lines from Luke 6 again, because Jesus knows how we feel.
“But I say to you that listen…love your your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you….Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
“But I say to you… that listen…”
Friends, it would be so much easier to love our enemies if they were listening to Jesus too; wouldn’t it? It would be so much easier to to do unto others as you would have them do unto you if everyone were willing to do the same. But the enemy, by definition, is out to harm. That is what makes them the enemy. And Jesus knows this full well.
I think to fully understand these words, you need to remember that he is still down on the plain where we left him last week. Jesus is still down amongst the poor and the hungry, the abused and exploited, the despised and the cursed.
He is preaching to people who know what it is to get the short end of the stick or suffer the business end of one. Life has not been kind to these folks because people of power and privilege have not been kind to them. There is nothing hypothetical about Jesus’ words here. These people know what it feels like to be struck down. They know what it is to go without, know what it costs to lose all you have and then some.
I know this passage can and has been mis-read to keep the oppressed in their place. Because of these verses, I know that far too many people in abusive situations have been told to suck it up, be a good obedient Christian, and endure suffering without complaint. But that is a horrible distortion of Jesus’ words and intent in this moment.
Jesus is not giving oppressors a free pass here. What he is doing is acknowledging that oppression is real. Abuse and violence, theft and exploitation, are all around us.
The powerful can take what they want, when they like, and hurt whoever they damn well please. That’s how it’s always been. That’s how, all too often, it still is. It’s not right but it is true, and Jesus knows that if these poor folks go up against the powerful and try to fight fire with fire, they’re just going to get burned. So he shows them another way.
Standing there on the plain he looks from one weary face to another and he says, listen, you may be poor, but you are not powerless. You don’t just have to take it. You can flip the script and play another role besides the victim. Haters gonna hate, but you don’t have to.
You can disrupt the narrative and counter hate with the most unexpected response possible…love. In a world where people are out for themselves first, a world where people are going to take what they can get and do whatever they can get away with, you can show people a better way.
Rather than do unto others before they can do unto you, you can treat people the way you want to be treated: with generosity, respect, and compassion. You may still get abused, exploited, or robbed, but hey, that was going to happen anyway. Why not throw a little love in the mix and see what happens?
Because here’s the thing: you may not be able to control your enemy – but you can still control yourself. Your power is in how you respond. So be like God who pours love out over everyone, not because they deserve it but simply because God is willing to give it. Tap into that power and maybe, just maybe, you’ll see the balance shift.
Back on that fateful night in 2018, one of my heroes failed, big time. John fought volume with volume and only added to the noise. He traded insult for insult and only fed the hate. It didn’t matter if he was right. His words only emboldened his enemy and made things worse. Thankfully, God wasn’t done that night. Not with John, the Proud Boys, or anyone else on that tour. As John stood behind the bus lamenting his failure, his friend Genesis Be took the stage.
Gen is a brilliant musician, poet, activist, (queer) woman of color, and probably twenty years younger than me (writes John). I (instantly)felt protective of her … and stepped out from behind the bus, waiting for what I was sure was going to be a moment necessitating physical intervention. As she began to softly speak about growing up in Mississippi as a queer biracial person in a home that was both Christian and Muslim, (can you imagine?) the Proud Boys began to heckle her as they’d done to me and the previous speakers – but (Gen) responded differently.
“Before I share my story,” she said, turning and looking directly at them, “I want to speak to my potential future co-collaborators back there.” Still looking directly at them, she said, “I don’t see you as my enemies, (and in that moment it was) as if someone pressed a mute button on the rest of the world, because the only thing I could hear was her voice and the quiet hum of the PA between her words. “I don’t see you as my enemies, but as potential co-collaborators.”
She smiled warmly and went further. “I want to know if any of you back there would be willing to come up here and embrace me?”
After a few still and silent seconds, one of the men began walking from the back row, still recording on his phone. He jumped up on to the center of the platform, and Genesis… Genesis opened her arms widely and hugged him….“I don’t agree with you,” she whispered, “but I love you.”
“I don’t agree with you, but I love you.”
And (to everyone’s surprise) he responded in kind.
Applause erupted from the platform and the audience and even the protesters. The man soon returned to his place at the back of the crowd and continued to talk back the rest of the night, but never as loudly or as angrily as he had. His rage had been disarmed by its radical counterpoint. I don’t know if Genesis actions changed him – but they changed …us, (writes John). They changed me.
Friends, when Jesus tells us to love our enemy, he is not condoning the actions of those who do harm, nor is he asking us to just be patient and condone them either. These words about loving our enemy were only ever meant to empower the oppressed, not excuse the oppressor.
When Jesus said, “love your enemy,” he was speaking to those on the outside and underside of this world, letting them know that they have the very power of God within them to disrupt the narrative, change the story, and remake this world anew.
The catch is that it’s not the sort of power that can force others to do the right thing, because that is not how love works. It comes with no guarantee; no guarantee of safety, no guarantee of change, no guarantee that it will work at all.
It is simply the power to call others into the work of the kingdom, invite them to become co-collaborators, if you will, until we are able to see, not just each others’ humanity, but get back in touch with the fullness of our own.
Genesis Be embodied that disruptive love with courage and conviction. She showed John, the Proud Boys, you, and me, how it can be done. So when the enemy comes a knocking, and you know they will because they’re jerks, may God grant us the grace to do the same. Amen.