Deuteronomy 10:1721; Matthew 5:4348
In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” We’ve encountered these words before, we know them to be true, but quite honestly they are almost impossible to hear when we think about the all too real threats to our security posed by those who would do us harm. The word terrorist is part of our daily discourse. Our highways now post call-in lines to report suspicious activity. Who, outside of those institutions charged with our national security, thought much about terrorists before the events of September 2001?
Later this summer we will watch two celebratory political conventions and surely there will be a lot of talk about terrorists, war, enemies and protecting our most cherished values of liberty and freedom. How are American Christians to square Jesus’ teaching with the realities of the 21st century global village? During the past seven years, while office holders and candidates in both political parties continue to spend enormous energy convincing the electorate of their Christian credentials (There is a front page story in this morning’s Washington Post about Barak Omama doing just that), for the first time they also talk about wanting to kill our enemies. With swagger and boasting they eagerly report about the enemies we have killed. Such bold language is seen as a sign of strength and resolve. So what about Jesus’ teaching and what about our discipleship? Is this morning’s text just a good example of how outmoded—or at best naïve—the gospel is?
Throughout Jesus’ ministry he advocated for a radical new way of life. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” reorders our understanding of justice. On days like this, and certainly in our loftiest political discourse, we like to think we demonstrate to the world the highest ideals of human freedom and democracy. But Jesus calls us to demonstrate something even more, we are to incarnate the heart and face of God’s mercy and justice to the world, and in so doing draw ourselves and others toward God.
Throughout the Hebrew scriptures the prophets condemned the use of violence to solve problems. The sword, they said shall be destroyed. And, of course, for Christians, Jesus’ teaching is the fulfillment of these earlier communications for God.
Actually all of the great religions of the world subscribe to some variation of the Golden Rule as the foundation of their way of life, “you shall love every person as yourself.” How sad then that the other side of this equation is equally true not just of our political systems but of the world’s religions, not least of all Christianity. Theologian Eugene Peterson writes, “Religion is the most dangerous energy source known to human kind. The moment a person, government, religion or organization is convinced that God is either ordering or sanctioning a cause or project, and then anything goes. The history of world-wide religion-fueled hate is staggering.” What an indictment!
So the challenge is both religious and political. As Christians, our religion must inform our politics to seek the welfare of all God’s family by being good neighbors to one another at home and beyond our borders, and by the unselfish sharing of our blessings. There will be no peace without justice! And as citizens, we must not allow religion to be a cover for our thirst for power and domination or even to bolster up the status quo.
When asked where then in America does God dwell today? The late William Sloane Coffin and friend of this Cathedral wrote, “I would say that God dwells with those in America who feel geographically at home and spiritually in exile. God dwells with them for going about doing good, repairing a broken world, and for opposing any entrenched fondness for subjugating nature in the name of progress. God dwells with those who seek God’s face, those who may doubt the quality of the bread, but don’t kid themselves that they are not hungry. God dwells with every committed Jew, Moslem, Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu who believes religious pluralism to be God’s will. But knows, as did Rabbi Heschel that ‘the first and most important prerequisite of interfaith is faith. And God dwells, I’m sure with all who in wonder, reverence and gratitude sing a new song in verse or prose, music and art, seeking to end the self-deception that tempts us all.”
The challenge for Christians is to transform the world’s kingdom into God’s kingdom. And that is what Jesus calls us to do this morning. It’s the vision cast by the writer of Deuteronomy, “God is God, the great God, might and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.” It’s an ideal; we will fall short, and God will continue to forgive our sins against one another. But as Christians our starting place always has to be here and not the glorification of violence as the ready solution to our conflicts.
Preacher Clayton Schmit reminds us that “this Independence Day (weekend) is a time of fond remembrance and thanksgiving, but it may also be a day of fond forgetfulness. It’s not a time when we like to remember the occasions when our nation has been wrong. But as Christians we must acknowledge our collective sins as well as all that is good, honorable and just. We do this because we’re called not only to live into the best ideals of our nation, but to inaugurate God’s kingdom.” Some would say this is mixing religion and politics. It is. I don’t think you can separate the two. Christianity is a way of life that is necessarily going to affect our politics and civic life.
Peter Story, the brave activist who stood up to apartheid writes, “No nation, no culture can escape the furnace of testing. The forces that almost destroyed South Africa are dangerously alive in every society, biding their time and waiting to be unleashed. However, the search for what the bible calls righteousness or compassionate fair dealing can begin to happen so long as Christians anywhere pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven and take those words seriously.”
Throughout salvation history, God’s people have been repeatedly invited to participate in the creation of God’s kingdom. It’s an invitation that is always in the present tense. Jesus is concerned about us loving our neighbors now, today, and not at some future time after present conflicts are resolved by other means.
Christianity is a religion that is all about engaging the world as we have inherited it. And that means at times we may need to speak out for a greater justice both here at home and beyond our borders. We may need to challenge our leaders and stand up to the cycle of violence as a solution to our differences remembering the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Through violence we may murder the hater, but we do not murder hate. In fact violence merely increases hate.”
Our freedom to speak out for righteousness and to be peacemakers is exactly the blessing we celebrate this weekend. William Sloane Coffin says there are three kinds of patriots, two bad and one good. The bad ones are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country that is a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with all the world. When there is doubt, there is more considered faith. Likewise when citizens doubt, patriotism becomes more informed.”
So we Americans—a blessed 5% of the world’s population—should daily thank God for this abundant land and our great freedoms. Because more than most of our sisters and brothers in God’s global family, we have the freedom to actively work toward building God’s kingdom of mercy, service, love of neighbor, a just distribution of resources, peace, and reverence for all of creation.
It is indeed right and our obligation that we pray for God to bless our nation, and as we sing, shed God’s grace on thee, crowing thy good with brotherhood and sisterhood from sea to shining sea, and confirming thy soul in self-control.
Let us pray, “God of all peoples and nations, we thank you that we have been given this good land in which to live. It is abundant with all the riches of your creation. As we celebrate our nation’s birth, may you bless America, not for our own pride or privilege alone, but in order that we might be a blessing to the world.” Amen.