Scripture Passage: Matthew 43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so 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. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? o 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
I would like to thank The Rev. Ken Clark for this invitation. We both have some connections to Colgate Rochester Divinity School, some friends in common and similar jobs, though vastly different in scale. I look forward to working together more in the future.
Thank you also to The Rev. Suzanne Guthrie for that nice introduction. I expect most of you don’t go to church twice on Sunday, so you may not have had the opportunity to get to know your Episcopal Chaplain very well yet. But I have to say you are lucky to have her here and I am delighted to have an Episcopal colleague with so many gifts and talents so close by.
I imagine that in this room I am among friends. Given the university setting, the stated non-sectarian nature of the service, and the list of speakers for this academic year, I am confident that this is an intellectual community that is progressive in its politics, a community that embraces multiculturalism. If I lived in Ithaca, I might very well make Sage Chapel my spiritual home. (Although I might very well have to go to church twice every Sunday – once with Suzanne and once with Ken.)
Appreciating the intellect, embracing difference, learning from other cultures and traditions, is what draws me to my own work as chaplain of Hobart and William Smith Colleges. I love my job. I am allowed to be and celebrate fully who I am, while at the same time being called to “be all things to all people”. Of course, I envy Dr. Clarke and all that university has to offer in the way of religious diversity, still I get to work closely with our tiny groups of Muslim and Hindu students, and with The Ven. Tenzin Ygnyen who offers Buddhist meditation every week, with the Finger Lakes Society of Friends, with my Roman Catholic and Jewish colleagues.
I am also delighted to receive a number of invitations from student organizations during the year. I am usually asked to offer opening prayers for the Latin American Organization’s Extravaganza, for the Caribbean Student Association’s Celebrate Diversity dinner, to lead a gathering for campus Pride, our GLBTQ organization. I learn so much at these events and am truly honored and grateful to be included. And (confession here) I secretly feel proud of my ability to speak a word, to name the moment, in a way that works for so many diverse groups and settings. I am proud of my open mindedness, my inclusiveness, of my intellectual and emotional grasp of difference.
And then over the summer the College Republican club asked me to open their first meeting of the fall semester with a prayer. The College Republicans.
Of course, I said yes. I am so open minded, inclusive. I appreciate difference.
The College Republicans? What would I say? How could I pray and maintain my integrity? Understand, I am happy to read from the Qu’ran, delighted to include African libations to the ancestors in a worship service, committed to participating in the Yom Hashoah service in April, but Republicans?
Of course I know not all republicans are alike. Three of my own grandparents were republicans. And they were nice people. But I can’t even say, “Some of my best friends are Republicans,” in an effort to smooth over my prejudice. Oh I know some. I even like some of them. But they aren’t my friends.
When I hear about couples in which one is a conservative and one a liberal or progressive, I just can’t imagine it. Jewish Muslim couples? No problem. Asian Italian? No problem. Age difference? We can work it out. Democrat Republican? Are they crazy? What could they possibly have in common? How would they raise their children? Wouldn’t the wedding reception be unbearably uncomfortable with the two families and their friends trying to make small talk? I really think it would be better if one of them were to convert to the politics of the other.
I believe what I have come face to face with in this invitation to pray with the College Republicans (and not for the first time) is a challenge. Consciously, or more likely unconsciously, the College Republicans, who see the rainbow cross on my door, who watch me stand with the anti-war protesters and peace activists, who know I do not believe that Jesus is the only way, are testing me. “OK, Ms. Inclusive, you say you are open to everyone. Are you open to beginning our meeting with prayer? Are you going to welcome us to the table? Are we acceptable in your sight?”
I feel trapped. On the one hand, of course I want to include this student organization just like all the others. On the other hand, I am truly uncomfortable. Will my presence be taken as a sign that I approve of their politics, condone their beliefs? The Progressive Student Union and College Democrats are not going to ask me to pray with them. (No matter what I tell them about the role of Christianity in the life of Dr. King and his followers, they persist in believing that Christian means conservative.) So my presence at a College Republicans meeting might be mistaken for an endorsement of values I find abhorrent.
But what really gets me here is that I come face to face with my own prejudice. I am so proud of my open mindedness, my inclusivity, but I have to admit, it is not “perfect”. I tolerate everyone except the intolerant. My only prejudice is against the prejudiced. Those caveats, those exceptions, however, force me to realize I am not so different from those I despise.
There are cultural values that I think are just plain wrong. Sinful, if you will. When I read the Bible and see that God is on the side of the oppressed, read the stories of people freed from bondage, listen to Paul’s understanding that there are no distinctions of culture or religion, or gender in Christ, I see a trajectory of liberation that moved us in this country to abolish slavery, give women the right to vote and is moving us to give gay and lesbian folks equal status and rights. I believe that God is on our side.
I believe just as strongly that God is not on the side of the United States in this war on Iraq. I believe that God is never on the side of those who use violence, never on the side of the rich over the poor, of corporations over persons.
And these very strong beliefs frighten me. Not because I think they might be wrong, but because in fact I am so completely convinced that they are right. In these areas I am unwilling to embrace any difference. I have heard all the arguments and am intellectually closed. There is nothing that conservative culture has to teach me. I have become the very kind of (capital T, capital B) True Believer I so abhor.
A friend of mine described for me a recent cartoon you may have seen. It showed John Kerry and George Bush’s heads so you could see inside. Kerry’s brain was grey and Bush’s black and white. I like grey matter! I value complex thinking, appreciate ambiguity. And yet, I find myself falling into the most rigid and dualistic mind set you can imagine when it comes to politics.
Of course I could try to justify myself. Activists have always been extremists. How could we possibly move toward social change without fervent belief in justice? Is not the prophetic voice of necessity strong and clear in its message? Yes and yes. Did not Matthew recall Jesus saying, “Do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them underfoot and turn and maul you”? Yes again.
And yet . . . And yet when I recognize in myself a certain self-righteousness, I feel more like the swine, ready to trample the words of my enemies under foot and to maul them when I get a chance.
I remember the Magnificat, “He has scattered the proud in their conceit,” and understand I am the proud. I remember my own firm belief that any rigid dualistic thinking is dangerous. It is appreciation of ambiguity and complex thinking which allows us to have a moral imagination, and therefore empathy for the “other.”
I remember above all our reading this morning, “Love your enemies.” “Be perfect.” Share your gifts with the evil and with the good, with the righteous and with the unrighteous. For if you love only those who love you, only those who agree with you, how are you person you claim to be?
What does it mean to “love your enemies”? I am really tempted, of course, to think it means to love the sinner, hate the sin. I will just love you little republicans to death. Of course, your political beliefs and values are sinful. And it wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t warn you that God is about to cast you into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. But understand, I love the real progressive person locked inside you.
But experience tells me that kind of love is no love at all. How often have we cringed to hear a nice “Christian” type say, “We love gay people. We just hate their sinful gay lifestyle. And of course we love the children of gays and lesbians, but we do need to teach them that their parents are going straight to hell.”
What does it mean to “love your enemies”? Does it mean loving the sinner and the sin? Or believing there is no real sin? Does it mean embracing a moral relativism, forcing ourselves to accept everyone and everything as equally valuable? Does “love your enemies” mean letting go of all strong convictions in order that we might be open to one another? I seem to be able to do that in terms of many religious beliefs. As Jim Burklo notes in his book, Open Christianity, it’s possible to believe you have the best kid on earth, and be equally comfortable with other parents who think they have the best kids on earth. But when it comes to core values, I’m not so sure. How do I love you if I cannot let go of my belief that you are doing great damage to others?
What does it mean to “love your enemies”? Does it mean being nice all the time? Does it mean doing myself an internal injury in an effort not to speak my mind in the presence of those with whom I disagree? Does being “perfect” mean being perfectly polite? I really hope not. I was in a marriage like that once. No one really mistakes “nice” for love. The fake smile. The perfectly cordial tone. The closed heart. Save us from a “love” like that.
No. One cannot claim to love a person apart from their core convictions. One cannot claim to have no convictions oneself. One cannot love deeply, truly by being nice and polite, by keeping ones beliefs to oneself.
So how do we love our enemies? Perhaps it is not possible. Perhaps it is no more possible to love our enemies than to be perfect. No more possible to love our enemies than to be God.
Perhaps we need just to ignore this little piece of Christian scripture. Perhaps we should rather stake our claim for righteousness, shake the dust off our sandals when folks refuse to hear us, leave the dead to bury their dead, and get on about bringing in God’s reign of justice and peace. And yet, I suspect there will be no justice and no peace until we learn what it means to love our enemies. Somehow we know what the Prophet Mohammed said is true, “Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.” We know with the Taoist tradition that we must “regard our neighbor’s gain as our own gain, our neighbor’s loss as our own loss” if we are to live in a world without war. In fact, every great religious tradition has some similar mandate.
Now, I confess that I may never be able to wish for the College Republicans what I wish for myself. I may never see their gain as my gain, their loss as my loss. But it may be possible that I can honestly, with my integrity in tact, try to love them. For what does it mean to love anyone? Enemy or friend? It means resisting all our self-protective, dehumanizing mechanisms. It means insisting on the humanity of the “other”, even tax collectors and traitors, even notorious sinners, even conservative Republicans. Loving means compassionate communication. Listening intently for meaning and speaking the truth as we understand it clearly. Loving is not about being nice. Sometimes loving means saying no. Always loving means resisting oppression. But Loving is never safe. To love is to be open, is to risk change, is to risk great pain, is even to risk death. But as far as I can see, Love is the only path to new life, to peace and to justice.
If I do not hold up for myself this impossible standard of perfection, “love your enemies,” I risk becoming the very sinful, rigid, dualistic, intolerant, True Believer I abhor.
So I challenge all of us, especially those of us who think we are right, “to see each other with a brand new eye,” and to pray fervently for the gift of Love. Amen.
Sermon for Sage Chapel at Cornell University, Lesley M. Adams
September 12, 2004