Who are our Enemies?
Sermon for Sunday, May 29, 2016 (2 Pentecost Proper 4)
St. David’s Episcopal Church, Gales Ferry, CT
Put away from us, we entreat you Lord, all hurtful things, and give us those things which are profitable for us.
I had a lot of memorable patients as a hospital chaplain. One of them was a homeless man named Frank… well, I think he was homeless; he didn’t say actually. But when I walked in his room, he was wearing one of those “mad bomber" hats that some people wear in winter. And his face had that grizzled, gaunt, rough-hewn look that I have seen on people who have spent a lifetime living or working outside. Cattle ranchers, oil derrick operators, open-ocean fishermen, and homeless people sometimes look like that. It took about 3 seconds to realize that Frank also had a little mental health problem, at least judging by the way he rambled and ranted. He had rough language that sounded like his face looked, with hard edges and words that you don’t often hear at St. David’s. So after we got introduced to one another, I sat down to listen to his story.
Frank told me was about his parentless childhood as a headstrong, rebellious, I’m-not-going-to-take-it boy living in a Catholic orphanage in Ohio. He told me about scandalizing the nuns and priests, and he was pretty proud of that. One of the things I learned in Chaplaincy is that the stories people choose to tell about their past are often ones that illustrate their present situation, and that was certainly true in Frank’s case. He was everyone’s enemy, and he didn’t mind saying that to their faces. Anyone with authority; policemen (I think he had met a few), shop owners… anyone who was wealthy (and that would mean just about everyone but him in Frank’s opinion)… anyone who was religious (he told me about his made-up “church")… anyone who whined about being poor or in need (as he put it), and anyone who would have the gall to help the poor (“let ‘em starve if they won’t take care of themselves" Frank said)… a really surprising idea for a homeless person, but Frank’s view of the world was that it was him against everybody from his earliest days… everybody was his enemy and he could hold his own against them all, thank-you-very-much, with threats, fighting-words, and I suspect, violence if it came to it. Frank, it seemed to me, tried very hard… VERY hard to be difficult to like. He would just as soon spit in your face as to look at you. (I’ll just note for the record that Frank and I got along well… giving him attention and a couple inviting questions was something Frank did not get very often I think). But there was ONE person that Frank was fond of… a woman who managed the night shift at a local gas station. This woman had a withered arm, and Frank described tenderly how she would have to reach across with her teeth to pull on her sweater. Frank was her champion… the defender of her cause… and woe to any customer who was cross with her or tried to cheat her. Frank would “mess them up". Frank… the enemy of power and privilege and pretension, was also a defender of the weak. That was his theology. In fact, he was in the hospital because his feet had gotten badly frostbitten while shoveling snow at the gas station so this woman wouldn’t have to.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus encounters an enemy… a Roman Centurion and an occupier of Israel… an officer of a foreign power.
How do we treat our enemies? This morning’s Old Testament reading gives one answer. This is the story of Elijah taunting the followers of Baal during a contest to see which God was really in charge. Now, the lectionary is a little cute in its choice of endings today, because it carefully leaves out the very next sentence at the end of the reading. Today’s reading ends this way “When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, "The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God."" Well that sounds all loving and conversion-y, doesn’t it? But here’s the very next sentence that’s left out of today’s reading: “Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.’ Then they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there." There were 450 prophets of Baal put to the sword that day. So that’s one way to deal with your enemies. And if history is any judge, it seems to be the #1 way. This isn’t the only place in the Bible where violence is offered as the Will of God by the way… we should think about that maybe. The good citizens of Capernaum knew about these passages too, so it makes their opinion of the Centurion all the more surprising.
Jesus suggests a different way to treat our enemies. This story of Jesus and the Centurion in Luke 8 follows immediately after Jesus’ “Sermon of the Plain" in chapter 7. This is Luke’s version of Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount". Here’s what Jesus says about enemies:
‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you… love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. That is certainly NOT the Elijah method is it? This is the thing about Jesus: he reveals new things about God… things that were not understood before.
Roman Centurions were very practical, very skilled mid-level officers of the Roman Army who had proven their service and bravery. They could take an order, see that it got carried out, and led their troop from the front in battle. As the name implies, Centurions were responsible for about one hundred soldiers, but they could be found at all levels of the Roman Army, at the cohort and legion levels as well. There is nothing really equivalent to this position in modern armies, but a reasonable analogy that might resonate in this Parish would be a Chief Petty Officer. They got things done, and they recognized bologna when they saw it. So this man was a very capable enemy.
Luke’s story happened AFTER reconciliation between enemies had occurred. The Centurion and the Jews of that town were enjoying the fruit of that new relationship… there was mutuality… each regarded the other as a neighbor… shared faith was possible, and so was healing, and in the Gospels, faith and healing are tightly coupled. Its interesting to me that, unlike a lot of Jewish towns, Capernaum was not destroyed by the Romans in either the First Jewish War of 66 CE or during the Bar Kokhba Revolt in 132 CE. Perhaps the people of that town had learned to live with the Romans in a way that didn’t invite retribution when the whole region turned to violence. Maybe there were later Centurion neighbors who vouched for this town the way the town had vouched for this Centurion to Jesus. That might be possible where reconciliation has happened.
Who are our enemies? It seems “unchristian" to have any, but the reality is that we do. Some of them seem obvious; ISIS, North Korea, Iran, maybe China… whole peoples who, some are sure, wish us harm. With honesty, some might see their enemies along racial and religious lines; African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics, Muslims… people who look different and anyone who seems to threaten the privilege and power we might enjoy in our culture if we happen to be in a class or a race that is at the top. Often, enemies can be people who have some characteristic we dread having ourselves and can’t bear to witness: people with dementia, chronic sickness, poverty, mental illness, homelessness, or incapacity. It seems cruel to call them enemies, but they are. Some might put politicians of various flavors at the top of their list. You might say to yourself “It makes me really angry that a jerk like that can have the power, adulation, and success that I would use more justly if I were in power". So sometimes our enemy is someone who has something that we really wish we had ourselves. Sometimes and enemy is someone who displays openly a characteristic we secretly have, but wish we didn’t. Some of mine are that way.
Here’s a Christian truth: sometimes, Jesus comes to us disguised as our enemy. And that means, if we really want to follow Jesus, is we’re going to have to deal with that. We’re going to have to engage with the people we don’t want anything to do with and see Jesus within them. Are you a person who wants to stand alongside oppressed refugees? Well, it’s a great thing to stand with the oppressed, but I hate to break it to you; Jesus is going to come to you disguised as a refugee hater; that’s the one you are going to have to engage and reconcile with. Are you someone who has had it up to here with “political correctness" on college campuses? For you, Jesus will come in the form of a feminist studies professor from Berkley… can you show this person the Jesus that is within you?
It was hard for me to see the face of Jesus in Frank. Frank was an enemy… offensive and brash… insulting and abrasive. But there he was… Jesus… in the face of that homeless man… defender of the oppressed and the marginalized. Frank and I enjoyed a few minutes of reconciliation together… we exchanged gifts with one another that the Spirit had given to each of us just for such an occasion: I gave him the gift of time and attention, and he told me about defending the weak. There was shared faith and healing for both of us I think. We left reconciled as friends, at least for that moment. May you be blessed to see Jesus in such an enemy. Amen.