Sermon 2/9 Knotted Together

Scripture Lessons: Matthew 5:38-48 and Psalm 23
Sermon: Knotted Together
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Has your stomach ever been in knots? This can be how we describe a situation of
great stress or anxiety or fear. My stomach was in knots before the job interview
or the exam.

In his wonderful book, Peace Is Every Step, Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh
talks about a Buddhist term which implies the image of knots. If someone is
unkind to us and we don’t understand the reason and take the words to heart, we
may become angry or irritated, it is as if a knot is tied within us. We may become
knotted up with anger, hurt, or resentment. He says, “The absence of clear
understanding is the basis for every knot.”

Well, however we may understand the knotting process, I think we can see that
things are pretty knotted up in our world today. Hurtful things are said and done.
There is a lack of understanding and compassion. People get knotted up inside.
Anger, anxiety, stress, and hostility mount. There is lashing out and retribution.
The knots become tighter and more tangled.

We see this happen in personal relationships. There is a lack of understanding.
Pain and hurt are inflicted. Harm is done. The knots are pulled tight.

We see the knotting process in families. Conflicts erupt. Hurtful things are said.
Divisions are created.

This knotting goes on in communities as people who experience life differently
become engaged in conflict.

And we certainly see the knots that are growing and forming an ugly tangle on the
national level in our country. People who are angry, hurt, and afraid lash out. The
lack of desire for understanding, the lack of compassion, the lack of honesty, the

lack of unity which is not the same as uniformity, these forces and more are
creating massive knots in our common life.

In this knotted, charged atmosphere, we listened again to the words of Jesus, yes,
these words were very likely actually spoken by the first century Palestinian Jew:
“Love your enemies.” And these words were not spoken in a setting that was all
peace, love, dove. It wasn’t instruction given to people who were living in a time
of unity and bliss. No. These words were spoken in a context that was highly
charged, divided, and volatile. The Jews and their homeland had been overtaken
by the Roman Empire and Rome was in charge. Jesus and his people were a
subjugated people. Being taken advantage of. Their lives of less value. They
were not treated with dignity and respect. The Romans were definitely the
enemies of the Jews. So this dictate, Love your enemies, was addressed to people
who were negatively impacted by their enemies on a daily basis.

And Jesus, himself, had enemies: Those who were protecting their power and
status. They were intent of getting rid of Jesus and his movement. They had him
killed. They were enemies. And we have the tradition of Jesus from the cross
forgiving those responsible for his death. Doing what he had instructed others to
do: Loving his enemies.

So this teaching, Love your enemies, it was real. It was not some spiritualized
succor. It was not offered in a setting of harmony and unity. No. Jesus spoke
these words in the midst of conflict, struggle, and hostility. There was no
minimizing of the power and influence of evil. With his literal life at stake and the
lives of his people, Jesus declares, Love your enemy. It is one of the core
teachings of Jesus and one of the most distinctive tenets of Christianity.

In a conversation with a clergy colleague this week, there was discussion about our
role in these difficult times. The colleague related a story about a situation in their
congregation. The pastor has been encouraging the church to be welcoming of all
people. The pastor then got a letter from a church member explaining that they
were against the church being inclusive of everyone. The pastor responded saying that love of God and love of neighbor were the foundation of Christianity. The
parishioner disagreed strongly telling the pastor that Christianity was based on love
of God and God alone. Not love of neighbor or anyone else. Just love of God.
And that’s how the church needed to be.

While the parishioner may feel that way that view is not consistent with the
teachings of Jesus or the New Testament. Christianity is about love of a God that
is present in every human being and so love of God includes love of neighbor, and
as we were reminded this morning, even love of enemy. This is fundamental to the
Christian religion. Without love of neighbor and love of enemy, you no longer
have Christianity.

In thinking about love of enemy, Clarence Jordan, who wrote the Cotton Patch
version of the gospels, a colloquial, Southern, black rendering of the texts, sees
love of enemy as the culmination of a progression in human development. He says
that first there is unlimited retaliation. Hit back with no restrictions. Then there is
limited retaliation. An eye for an eye. Something commensurate with the offense.
The next step is limited love. Good will and mercy offered to a limited circle. To
your clan, tribe, kin. And finally, there is unlimited love as we see it in God and in
the ministry of Jesus. Love that is extended to all. Universal in scope. Seeking
the highest good of everyone. [Clarence Jordan, Sermon on the Mount, pp. 63-66]

This unlimited love is the love that Jesus teaches. This is the love that can help to
untie the many knots that are tying us up, binding us, and holding us back. Love of
enemy acknowledges that we have enemies. That there are those who do harm,
those who hate, those who hurt, those who cause pain. There are enemies. We are
all capable of incredible harm, violence, and evil. And sometimes we are doing
harm to ourselves; we are our own enemy. The enemy is within us and we are
harming ourselves. To heal, to become whole, we must seek the highest good of
ourselves, as well as those we like the least, those who harm us, those who are
perpetrating violence. That is what love is. Seeking the well-being, the highest
good, the best, for ourselves and all others. We find our healing and wholeness by loving; expressing the image of God within us, the God of universal love even to
those we name as enemy.

In the first winter after World War 2, a Jewish rabbi donated money to German
relief, saying, “I believe with all my heart that we should rise above hatreds and
prejudices and succor all people who are afflicted and heavy-laden.” [Roger L.
Shinn, The Sermon on the Mount, p. 46] This rabbi was not only helping the
Germans who had mass murdered his people, he was helping himself. He was
tending to his own humanity; he was drawing forth his capacity for love and
mercy. He was expressing the image of God within him and acknowledging that
image within every human being.

Love your enemy. It is difficult. Is it practical? As a strategy for social change?
Maybe. For the civil rights movement, loving your enemy was morally right and
tactically effective. But then use of force wasn’t really an option because the
government had so much more fire power. So love of enemy can be practical.

But what it really does is help us to uncover our deepest humanity, the image of
God within us. It transforms us. It heals us. It nurtures our wholeness and highest
good. It helps us to become our best selves.

I want you to take a moment to think about someone you may consider an enemy.
Maybe it is someone who has caused you pain in some way. Maybe it is someone
with beliefs and values that you find abhorrent. Maybe it is someone who you
vehemently disagree with. Maybe it is someone whose choices have caused harm
to someone you care about. Just take a moment to think of someone you might
consider an enemy. Visualize the person. Now, I invite you to pray for that person
every day for a month. Pray for their wellbeing. Their highest good. Pray for
them to experience peace and wholeness. Maybe put the name on a piece of paper
and tape it to the bathroom mirror or put it on the refrigerator or as the wallpaper
on your phone. Try to commit to praying for that enemy at least once a day for a
month. See what happens. See how you feel. See if it has any effect.

We started out talking about the image of knots. When we don’t understand the
pain of others, their behavior and words can cause us pain. Tie us in knots. When
we don’t understand ourselves and our vulnerabilities and insecurities, we can find
ourselves tied in knots. When we seek understanding, we can have compassion on
others and ourselves and then the knots loosen. This can happen when we love our
enemies.

But this is difficult. Philosopher Bertrand Russell, who was not a Christian, had
this to say about the Christian ideal of love of enemies: “There is nothing to be
said against [the Christian principle] except that it is too difficult for most of us to
practice sincerely.” [Shinn, p. 45] If we are honest, we can appreciate the truth in
Russell’s observation. The instruction from Jesus to love our enemies is a high and
holy calling. We may think of a Martin Luther King or a Nelson Mandela. Rare
cases. But what about the rest of us?

Here we turn to another image involving knots:
“Who is closer to God,” the seeker asked, “the saint or the sinner?”
“Why, the sinner, of course,” the elder said.
“But how can that be?” the seeker asked.
“Because,” the elder said, “every time a person sins they break the cord that
binds them to God. But every time God forgives them, the cords is knotted again.
“And so, thanks to the mercy of God, the cord gets shorter and the sinner
closer to God.” [Joan Chittister, 25 Windows into the Soul: Praying with the
Psalms, p. 18]

We need not be afraid of our failures. We can learn that to retaliate against an
enemy is to harm ourselves. It comes from anger within, and a lack of
understanding and honest self examination. We can accept our truth and forgive
ourselves and our enemies bringing us closer to God, the God within us and the
God within others. Bound together in love. Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in
this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church
of Christ.

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