Date: Feb. 20, 2022
Scripture Lessons: Genesis 45:1-15, Luke 6:27-38
Sermon: Set back. Set right.
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
Earlier this month I read about a man in Oregon who accidentally shot his brother while loading a gun to try to defend himself against a bear in his yard. After killing his brother, he called 911 and reported what had happened. When the police arrived they found the brother, dead. They also found the other brother dead from a self- inflicted gunshot wound. Evidently when the man saw that he had killed his brother, he turned the gun on himself and took his own life as well. It seems he simply could not see how he could go on living after what had happened.
[ https://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/police-man-confronting-bear-accidentally-kills-brother-82806693 ].
What a heart-breaking tragedy.
And what about those brothers in the story of Joseph? Yes, he was the annoying younger brother. Daddy’s pet. They were determined to do away with him. So they put him in a pit. Then they sold him into slavery. And told the father he was dead. Eaten by a wild animal. That was the end of that. Until many years later, in their desperation during a time of famine, they unexpectedly find their brother, and he has the power that controls their survival. Of course they have nothing to say, at first. They are asking the brother they wanted to kill to save their lives. What can be said? How to go on after something so heinous?
And then there is slavery in this country and what it has done to the people who were directly involved and their descendants, and to the country as a whole, and to all of us still today. One person owning another person. A system in which people have no freedom and are completely controlled by other people who own them. Who see them as property, to be used, like a tool or a machine. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gives a moving description of the ravages of slavery: “For years the Negro has been taught that he is nobody, that his color is a sign of his biological depravity, that his being has been stamped with an indelible imprint of inferiority, that his whole history has been soiled with the filth of worthlessness. All too few people realize how slavery and racial segregation have scarred the soul and wounded the spirit of the black man. The whole dirty business of slavery was based on the premise that the Negro was a thing to be used, not a person to be respected.” [The Radical King: Martin Luther King, Jr., edited and introduced by Cornel West, p.194.]
How do you come back from that? As a person? As a society? How do you go on after something like that? How do we heal? Recoup? Make a path?
The familiar words that we heard this morning from the gospel of Luke are core teachings of Christianity. They are intended to give us a way back after we have gotten into trouble. They offer signposts on the path of reconciliation when there is disruption in a relationship. And these teachings not only address personal relationships that involve disruption and betrayal but also the ravages of societal institutions and arrangements that create divisions and rifts. So these teachings are about more than just how to get along with your actual neighbor. They are also about how to set things right when they have gone wrong in the world.
Now we want to keep in mind that we know we have problems, differences, and conflicts. We are living in a time of extreme polarization. And before we cast aside the teachings of Jesus as impractical, theoretical instructions for resolving conflict and pursuing reconciliation, let’s reflect on some of the things that we do to supposedly resolve conflicts and address problems. When there is disruption in a relationship, we may back out, disappear, cut off the relationship. End contact. Rather than doing the work of resolving the differences and making a way forward. This happens so often in families as well as in other settings. Is that practical and healthy?
In other situations, we address problems and conflict through violence. Maybe verbal violence, words of hatred, words that are hurtful and harmful. And also through actual deeds of violence to property as well as to people. This happens in interpersonal relationships as well as on a societal scale. Is this practical and healthy? These methods are used in conflicts between individuals, groups, countries, and peoples. Look at Russia and Ukraine. These are some of the ways that society teaches us to respond to differences, to conflict, to problems, to disputes. Are they so practical? Do they get the desired results? Are these methods constructive and sustainable? I don’t think so.
What Jesus is offering is an alternative path for addressing differences and conflict. It is a path with efforts made toward reconciliation and peace; extreme efforts because that is what is needed when there is extreme conflict, an extreme breach. Sometimes you can simply apologize to a friend. But sometimes you have to actually love an enemy. We see this actualized in the story of Jesus forgiving those who were responsible for his death from the cross. And in the public forgiveness issued by Dexter King, Dr. King’s son, to James Earl Ray who assassinated Dr. King. [Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge, epilogue.]
Love is a misunderstood term. To love your enemy is not weakness. It is not cowardice. It is not passive. To actively love, to seek the good of someone who has harmed you, this take courage, bravery, and risk. It is not for the fainthearted.
In the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King promoted love and the use of non-violent means to confront evil. He did not promote ignoring evil and thus being complicit in evil. He did not promote doing nothing and just suffering in silence. King promoted the use of love and nonviolence to confront the evils of racism and to move the country and the world closer to freedom and dignity for each and every person. King put the emphasis on the evil of segregation not on the people who were defending it. He sought to separate the person and the issue so that he could always see each and every person as a child of God. He was not willing to sacrifice his commitment to the way of Jesus and the core teachings of his faith. So he remained committed to nonviolence even when it became very unpopular. Many people saw nonviolence as weak. But actually nonviolent resistance requires vulnerability, creativity, and risk. It is not easy or pain free. We have seen the images of the violence and death inflicted upon those who sought social transformation through nonviolence. The way of Jesus
In the readings we heard this morning we are reminded that we are human. There will be misunderstandings. We will have problems in our relationships. We will make mistakes. We will hurt others with our words and behavior. We are human and imperfection is a core trait of our humanity. Given this reality, the only way to promote the health and well being of the soul is to address issues and problems with love.
Dr. Kings defends the teaching ‘Love your enemies’ when he says: “. . .hate scars the soul and distorts the personality.
“ . . . Hate is just as injurious to the person who hates. Like an unchecked cancer hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity.
“. . . love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.” [The Radical King: Martin Luther King, Jr., edited and introduced by Cornel West, pp.59-60.]
Dr. King does not simply expect white people to suddenly embrace the concept of loving Black people. That is not how he uses this teaching. He uses this teaching to encourage Black people to love their oppressors, white people. He says:
“There will be no permanent solution to the race problem until oppressed men develop the capacity to love their enemies. The darkness of racial injustice will be dispelled only by the light of forgiving love. . .
“Of course, this is not practical. . . .
“My friends, we have followed the so-called practical way for too long a time now, and it has led inexorably to deeper confusion and chaos. Time is cluttered with the wreckage of communities which surrendered to hatred and violence. For the salvation of our nation and the salvation of mankind, we must follow another way. . . While abhorring segregation, we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community.
“To our most bitter opponents we say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. . . . Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.
“Love is the most durable power in the world.” [The Radical King: Martin Luther King, Jr., edited and introduced by Cornel West, pp. 61-63.]
Here we see a reflection of the teachings of Jesus. Love your enemy. Do good to those who hate you. Pray for those who mistreat you. Turn the other cheek. These are the methods for healing and reconciliation in interpersonal relationships as well as societal rifts. Yet they remain largely untried.
Let us remember that the teachings of Jesus are not a litmus test for Kindom entrance. They are a set of directions, a road map, for how to live this life with love and morality and dignity and joy. We are fallible, flawed creatures as individuals and as a society. These teachings are a gift to help us navigate our way out of trouble. Solve our problems. They show us how to set things right. They show us how to go on when we have messed up our relationships, from personal to international. Jesus gives us a way forward.
While some strides have been made in improving race relations in America, we still have that and many other divisions and tensions and conflicts that require attention. And as we live out the way of Jesus, we will see the dreams of Dr. King realized: “. . . in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.” [The Radical King: Martin Luther King, Jr., edited and introduced by Cornel West, p.45.] 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.