My first sermon of 2019 must have been for me more than my congregation… because I can’t get it off of my mind.
It was about the wise men, and how they followed a star to find Jesus. How we don’t get a star to follow but we do get clear commands to love God and love our neighbors. Those love commands are like our star; if we keep moving closer toward love, we’ll be led closer and closer to Jesus.
Normally, once I preach a sermon it leaves my brain to make room for the next one. Not this one; it stuck with me. It wasn’t that it was a new concept; I learned that we’re supposed to love God and neighbor in children’s Sunday School. But it’s surprising how easily one can get distanced from the love commands. At least this “one” can; I get buried under statistical reports and filling staff positions and an almost-finished new church website and articles for the local paper and… Well, “love” slips to the bottom of my to-do list. It can even fall right off the page. I can forget that my #1 responsibility is LOVE.
This reminder came like a diagnosis of my spiritual health: I need to give love more priority. Then, as I worked my way through the gospel of Matthew during my devotional reading, I came across what felt like the prescription for treatment:
“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…” (Matthew 5:43-44).
If I want to give love more priority, loving my enemies is a great way to do it.
Life gives us plenty of enemies to practice on, after all.
What – don’t you have enemies? I’m not talking about robbers in masks or bad guys with oily mustaches; our real-life enemies are seldom that typecast. The Greek word Jesus is using for “enemy” can be translated as “hated” or “hateful,” something like an opponent or adversary. That definition of “enemy” broadens the category. We’re not just talking about super-villains who wear all black and/or shall not be named. Our enemies are anyone we hate and anyone who feels like an opponent.
Do you have someone – or a group of someones – that you hate? Do you have someone – or a group of someones – who feel like your opponents?
Then you have enemies.
When I’m accurately identifying my enemies, I know it, because I typically feel a reluctance to love these people. They’re annoying. They make my day difficult. They’re working against what I’m trying to work for. I may not wish ill will for them – but I’d rather avoid them than love them.
They make me want to ask Jesus, “C’mon now – do I really have to love them?”
I hear that same question in the lawyer in Luke 10. “I know we’re supposed to love our ‘neighbors’ as ourselves,” he tells Jesus. “But c’mon now – some of my neighbors are awful. Can you narrow this down a bit? Who counts as my neighbor?”
To answer him, Jesus tells a story.
Once, a man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho – a notoriously steep and dangerous road. Going that route was like wandering into a bad neighborhood at night. The worst-case scenario happens: the traveling man gets robbed and left for dead. A priest sees him – but crosses over to the other side of the road. He’d rather avoid him than help. A Levite (Jewish religious leader) sees him – but does the same thing, moving to the far side of the road in order to avoid the injured man. Fortunately, one last person comes along:
In Jesus’ first-century world, Jews and Samaritans were enemies. They hated each other. They were bitter rivals – not based on the jerseys they wore, but on who their great- great- grandparents had been and where they worshiped God. This particular Samaritan and Jew didn’t know each other personally, but they didn’t need to. They were enemies.
It’s this Samaritan who stops and cares for the Jewish man. It’s this Samaritan who bandages him and takes him to a hotel and pre-pays the bill. Not the priest or the Levite, who were on the same “team” as the traveler. It was the Samaritan.
At the end of the story, Jesus asks the lawyer: “Which one was the neighbor?”
It’s as though the lawyer can’t bring himself to say, “the Samaritan.” He just admits, “The one who showed mercy.”
And Jesus says: “Go and do likewise.”
So, if love is the priority, and if loving our enemies is an important way to love, the Good Samaritan gives us the model example to follow: going to our enemy and showing mercy.
Or, as Bob Goff might put it, “Love Does.”
Nine months ago I had never heard of Bob Goff – an attorney and Christ-follower and author. But since this summer, it seems he’s everywhere. Our summer intern had had him as a professor and talked about him with a sparkle in her eyes. A friend enrolled at the law school where he teaches. Then, when my interested had been piqued, some new friends handed me his books to read: Love Does, and then a follow-up, Everybody, Always. The basic premise of these is that love is a thing we do – and Bob has some amazing stories about how he puts love into action. Reading Bob’s stories made my heart feel big. They reminded me just how life-changing it can be to put love into action.
One story is about how Bob was working to prosecute witch doctors in Uganda. These witch doctors were abducting babies and children for sacrifice – an obviously horrible act that should be punished – but no one ever brought them to justice because the people of Uganda were so afraid of the witch doctors. Bob came across the story of one young man who had been tragically mutilated and left for dead, but managed to survive. (I’ll leave off the details, because I preached this sermon in front of a mixed audience with kids, but suffice to say it’s that very worst thing you’re imagining.) Long story short, Bob manages to get the kid to stand witness and prosecutes the witch doctor – the first time this had happened in Uganda. And don’t you know, the good guys won! The bad guy was thrown in jail forever!
If Bob weren’t a follower of Christ, the story would have ended there. But Bob remembered the bit about loving his enemies. This witch doctor was undoubtedly his enemy. You don’t use words like “pure evil” and “creepy” to describe your friendly neighbors.
So Bob decided (very reluctantly) to go and visit the witch doctor in prison. That’s it – just go and visit him.
That visit turned into the witch doctor asking for forgiveness.
The witch doctor asking for forgiveness turned into him also receiving Christ.
The witch doctor receiving Christ turned into the witch doctor witnessing to the other inmates about Christ.
The witch doctor witnessing to the other inmates turned into Bob himself coming to Christ in a new way. “I was moving away from agreeing with Jesus,” Bob writes, “to doing what he said when he talked about loving my enemy.”
This is what can happen when we are willing to follow the example of the Good Samaritan – to go to our enemies and show them mercy. It changes them, and it changes us.
This is can happen for you, too.
You – whoever you are – have enemies. You know who they are. They’re people you dislike, people you think are dumb, people you see as on the rival team. Those people – your enemies – are the ones you’re especially called to love. And not “love” in the heart-feely sense, but “love” in the Good Samaritan sense. “Love” as in showing mercy; “love” as in actually doing something for that person.
So I challenge you to go and do what Bob Goff did: just visit that person.
Invite them to lunch. Have a cup of coffee. Call them on the phone. Send a message or a card. You don’t have to talk about whatever it is that makes you “enemies” – just go to them and see what happens. I’ve been trying to make a habit of this, and I’ll tell you – it’s amazing how my heart can soften over just one conversation. Going to my enemy increases my love.
What if the whole world did that – when we sense that someone’s our enemy, going to them and showing them mercy? How would that increase the love in the world?
What if just 864 people did that?
In the United Methodist Church we’re having a General Conference – right now – over the issue of homosexuality. 864 delegates are gathered to debate an issue that too often transforms fellow Christians into modern-day Jews and Samaritans. In some ways, this General Conference is heartbreaking; it might turn out more like a war zone than a “Holy Conference.” But something beautiful is also happening here, because 864 people have chosen to go to each other instead of avoiding each other. I pray that the Holy Spirit will bless that step; I pray that they will be able to show each other mercy, and through mercy, find more love.
May it be so. For them, and for us, and for this world.
As Christ said: “Go and do likewise.”