Sermon 08-25-13: “Back to School, Part 3: Love Your Enemies”

August 29, 2013
The mountain on which Jesus gave this great sermon.

The mountain on which Jesus gave this great sermon.

This sermon explores the connection between anger and enemy-making. As difficult as Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” is, this kind of love gets to the heart of Christ-like love. As I say in this sermon: “Learn to love your enemies, and you learn to love, period.”

Sermon Text: Luke 6:27-38

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

I am inspired by the courage of Antoinette Tuff, a bookkeeper at McNair Learning Academy in Decatur. As probably heard, last Tuesday, a mentally disturbed young man wielding an AK-47 style assault rifle burst into her office, held her at gunpoint, while she calmly talked to him. She empathized with him, telling him about her own struggles raising a disabled child and losing a husband. She reassured him, saying that since he hadn’t hurt anyone, he could still surrender peacefully.

In a 911 call, she was overheard telling him, “We’re not gonna hate you, baby. It’s a good thing that you’re giving up.”[1] She also told him that she loved him and that she was praying for him. He finally surrendered. No one was hurt.

Antionette Tuff, a hero who saved the lives of many children last week.

Antionette Tuff, a hero who saved the lives of many children last week.

Can you imagine? Here we have a living, breathing example of a disciple of Jesus Christ loving and praying for the very real enemy that stood before her with an assault rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition. How do you do it?

How do you do this thing that Antoinette Tuff did, this thing that Jesus says to do in today’s scripture: “Love your enemies”? The very first step is to recognize the fact that you have enemies. You have enemies. Some people don’t like you. Some people want you to fail. Some people are happy when you’re unhappy. Jesus doesn’t say, after all, “If you have enemies, love them.” No, he assumes that we have enemies.

A recurring theme of the TV show Everybody Loves Raymond was that, well, everyone loved Raymond, a successful sports columnist for a New York newspaper—not to mention the favored son of the two sons in the family. Except in one episode. In one episode, Raymond found out that a prominent sports TV host couldn’t stand Ray or the sports column he wrote. He thought Ray was an idiot. Ray can’t believe that this guy doesn’t like him. So Ray goes to a party that this TV broadcaster is at, intending to prove to himself that the story couldn’t be true, and in fact, this broadcaster must really like him. So Ray asks him about the rumor, and the guy smiles to Ray’s face, says he can’t believe that Ray heard that rumor, and that of course he loves Ray’s column. It’s great. Only moments later, Ray overhears this guy putting him down again. Even Raymond, whom everybody loves, has enemies.

I’m at least a little like Raymond. I want everyone to like me; I know I’ve chosen a strange profession for that, but still! It makes me uncomfortable to imagine that I have enemies. I had a deeply unsettling experience last week on Facebook of all places. On a United Methodist clergy page, of all places, I was sucked into a debate, a raging argument, with other clergy I’ve never met in person. And the argument became personal and ugly. I felt insulted. And I got angry. Righteously angry, because of course I was on the side of goodness and light, and these others—I can’t even imagine how these heretics ever got ordained, you know?

In Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explores the close connection between making enemies and being angry: “You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment.” Jesus is quoting from the Ten Commandments. He goes on, “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell.”

Is it fair to say, then, that anger itself is spiritually dangerous? Why do I—why do we—so often tell ourselves that it isn’t? Because, we say, “My anger is justified. Because I’m right to be angry. Because this person has hurt me, and that just isn’t right.” When we get angry we always feel that way. We can always justify our anger. So there’s always a little bit of self-righteousness in our anger. It comes from a wounded ego, and if we follow Jesus’ example then remember we don’t want to let our ego get in the way. To make matters worse, our culture convinces us that it’s good to be angry, and that it’s bad to repress anger, to keep it bottled up. Think about that image: bottled up. It assumes that we human beings are like pressure-cookers and that anger is a release valve we have to open, or we’ll explode.

That’s not true, you know? Anger by itself isn’t necessarily a sin, and it may be an unavoidable emotional response over which we have no control. But anger always makes things worse. Far from being a pressure valve, anger has a way of producing extra pressure: anger begets anger. It adds fuel to the fire that’s already lit and burning. In his book on the Sermon on the Mount, Dallas Willard says, “There is nothing that can be done with anger that cannot be done better without it.”[2] As you know from practical experience, we always make better decisions by keeping a cool head and keeping our anger under control.

A recent article in the satirical “newspaper” The Onion may as well have been written about me. You can see the headline, in which I have deleted a barnyard-related expletive: “Father Teaches Son How To Fly Into Rage Over Completely Inconsequential Baloney.” In the article, the father says the following:

onion_headine copy

“Now that Zach’s getting older, it’s important for me to show him how to deal with the minor inconveniences in life by blowing them totally out of proportion… Zach should know that small, trivial irritations, like misplaced keys or having to relight the pilot light in the basement, should trigger an unbridled anger inside him. And that’s not something he can fully learn from his friends at school or by watching TV—he needs a father figure right there, blowing up in his face about never, ever messing with the DVR again for him to see exactly how it’s done.”

I hope that some of you fathers besides me can relate to this. Maybe some of you mothers, too?

So, not only do we have enemies, we often treat people we love like enemies when we act out based on our anger—including spouses, children, siblings, family, and friends. Anger may not be a sin, but it’s always a problem to deal with.

So, you tell me: Are those Methodist clergy with whom I got in a fight on Facebook last week my enemies? Yes, I believe they are! Yet I probably wouldn’t have even considered that fact if I weren’t studying this scripture this week in preparation for this sermon. I might have gotten in a fight with them and still said of myself, “I don’t have any enemies.” Well, of course I do! Whom we badmouth? Whom do we gossip about? Whom do we frequently complain about to our spouse or our friends? Whom are we jealous of? For whom are we harboring bitter resentment? Let’s just call a spade a spade and confess that some of these people are enemies. If not, they are at least they are people whom we often treat as enemies through our thoughts, words, and deeds—and Jesus has something to say to us about them!

Unless we recognize that we have enemies in our midst, then we begin to think of our enemies merely as those people over there… Osama bin Laden was an enemy. Saddam Hussein was an enemy. Obviously, Antoinette Tuff had an enemy pointing an AK 47 at her! So when we read scripture like today’s, we may feel discouraged and think, “How am I supposed to do this? This is unrealistic! How am I supposed to love someone who wants to kill me—like the Osama bin Ladens of the world?” To which I say, “Forget about the Osama bin Ladens of the world for the moment. Forget about terrorists and mass murderers for the moment. Forget about people who would love to see our country destroyed for the moment. Forget about people who hold people hostage at gunpoint. When it comes to loving our enemies—let’s start in our backyard, or frontyard, or schoolyard, or churchyard, or workplace, or family gatherings, or wherever our friends hang out, or on Atlanta highways and interstates. Because we probably will find enemies right there.

Maybe these examples of enemies seem small, even trivial. But they are symptoms of a deeper spiritual problem. They reflect what is in our hearts, and, make no mistake, one of the main points Jesus is making in the Sermon on the Mount is what’s in here.

It was the Pharisees and the scribes after all, who were teaching that righteousness was a matter of obeying the law, following rules. “Thou shalt, thou shalt not…” Do this, avoid that, and we’ll be O.K. Jesus is saying, “Not even close!” Because what matters is the heart. I mean, anger is a problem that often leads to sin, as I said. But don’t think for a moment that merely avoiding getting angry with someone means that you’re O.K. You’ve heard, “I don’t get mad. I get even”? More often we don’t get mad; we just harbor deep resentment toward someone. Or our lack of anger becomes a weapon, a moral high ground that we seek to gain over an enemy. In which case, our heart still isn’t right. As one writer said, “You don’t have to get mad to be mean.”

My point is, as we read these challenging words from Jesus—when someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well; give to everyone who asks and ask for anything back, etc., we are tempted to make the same mistake as the Pharisees. Even if we do “turn the other cheek” instead of seeking revenge every time someone hurts us, even if we do give to every homeless or needy person who asks us—including giving them the shirt off our back—that doesn’t mean we’re spiritually O.K. We might instead feel proud and self-righteous if we accomplish what Jesus is saying. What matters is our heart.

I get that they sound like laws, but Jesus isn’t giving us laws to follow. Instead, he’s showing us what real love in action looks like. Remember the Great Commandment: “Love the Lord with your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments, hang all the Law and the Prophets,” Jesus says. The apostle Paul makes the same point: “The one who loves fulfills the law.”[3]

The point of Jesus’s words is love. Whatever we do, we always act in the interest of Christ-like love. So when Jesus says, “When someone slaps you, turn the other cheek,” he doesn’t mean when someone tries to murder you. Or abuse you. Or wage war against you. A slap on the cheek was not meant to kill or maim or physically injure someone; it was to insult someone. Why do you turn the other cheek? To be slapped again? Well, when you make yourself vulnerable like that, that’s always a possibility; but Jesus’ point is that you turn the other cheek to give your enemy an opportunity to kiss your cheek—to do the right thing. You leave open the possibility of reconciliation. Because that’s what love does. When Jesus says, “Give to everyone who asks”—even the shirt off your back—he isn’t advising us to be taken advantage of, to be abused, to be walked on, to be stolen from. If we let someone do that to us, we are not loving them. Love doesn’t encourage or condone other people’s sins. Love doesn’t turn us into doormats to be walked over.

That’s not what love looks like.

You know what love does look like? It looks like what God the Son did for us on the cross. God didn’t need anything from us when he became human and lived and suffered and died on our behalf. See the reason that Jesus says that merely loving people who love us doesn’t count for much—or doing good to people who do good to us, or lending to people who will pay us back—is because we’re constantly getting repaid for our love. That kind of love is easy.

Lisa and I saw this really bad movie last year starring Steve Carell, from The Office. In the movie, a gian meteor is on its way, and it’s going to strike the earth and destroy all life on the planet in two weeks. So… how would you spend the last two weeks of your life, if you knew that in two weeks you and everyone was going to be dead. Steve Carell, who’s middle-aged, falls in love with an attractive young woman—and they fall in love and face the end of the world together. And the movie was supposed to make some profound statement about love. Are you kidding me? He knew this beautiful young woman for two weeks! Of course he loved her! She flattered his ego. She made him feel good about himself. He loved that she loved him. Suppose the world didn’t end after all. Isn’t there any reason to suspect that the two of them would love each other for the rest of their lives? Of course not!

We don’t want to love our enemies, Jesus implies, because they don’t do anything for us. We don’t get anything in return for it. We don’t get anything out of it. Our ego is once again getting in the way. And I suspect that at the root of all our relationship problems with people who aren’t our enemies, we find our ego asking us, “Why isn’t this person doing anything for me? Why isn’t this person giving me something? Why isn’t this person paying me back for what I’ve given them?”

Jesus is telling us, in so many words: “Learn to love your enemies, and guess what? You get love for everyone else thrown in.” “Learn to love your enemies, and you’ll also learn how to love your husband or wife more—or your children, or your brothers and sisters, or your fellow church members—your business partners, your neighbors, and everyone else in your life.”

Because when you think about it, love for your enemies—which only seeks the other person’s interest, which by its nature is self-giving, self-sacrificial, and selfless—is really the only kind of true love that exists.

Learn to love your enemies, and you learn to love, period.

[1] Kate Brumback, “School Employee Helped Avert Tragedy in Standoff,” AJC, 23 August 2013. Web. 23 August 2013. <>.

[2] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: HarperOne, 1997), 151.

[3] Romans 13:8

4 Responses to “Sermon 08-25-13: “Back to School, Part 3: Love Your Enemies””

  1. I just loved this, Reverend.

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, another great sermon. I especially liked your notation that “turning the other cheek” does not mean letting others “walk all over you” in one fasion or another. I have a slightly different tack on that which I toss out from consideration. Suppose Jesus did intend to encompass “walking all over” in the first instance (somewhat like “walking the extra mile,” maybe). Even if so, however, I think there would still be “other principles” to be considered, the result of which might call for a different result in various instances under my “doctrine of competing principles.” Thus, preservation of innocent life is another principle. Doing the thing most helpful for the person you are placed in contract with is another principle. So, when those other principles are also “on the table,” then even if “turning the other cheek” is given a broader construction, it would still generaly not call for allowing a “walking over,” and especially not when it comes to protecting third parties.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Thanks, Tom. As I say in the sermon video (which didn’t make it into the manuscript, I don’t think), it’s downright cruel to turn someone else’s cheek for them. That’s one problem with pacifism. The pacifist’s stance, no matter how principled, inevitably hurts not only themselves but people they love.

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