Read Luke 6:27-38, Genesis 45:1-15 here.
I love it snow much that we’ve had snow here in Sterling this week. It makes it feel kind of like Christmas. Maybe that’s why I’ve been thinking about the movie A Christmas Story (1983). It’s set in 1940 and tells about a boy named Ralph who wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. Throughout the movie, Ralph and his friends are harassed by the neighborhood bullies every time they go outside. Ralph says, “In our world, you were either a bully, a toady, or one of the nameless rabble of victims!” One day Ralph finally snaps and beats up the bully. We know that’s wrong, but we do feel a little proud of Ralph for standing up to the guy and refusing to be the victim anymore. If we’re ambivalent about that scene, it might be because of Jesus’ words in our gospel reading for today from Luke, in which he tells us to “love our enemies” and “turn the other cheek.”
Who is our enemy? Jesus says, “Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you” (Luke 6:27-28). We get some definition of our enemies here. Those who hate us, curse us, or hurt us. Even those we love sometimes hurt us, and we sometimes hurt them, even when we don’t mean to. The reality is that we are both people who hate and have been hated, who curse and have been cursed, who hurt and have been hurt.
Who is our enemy? Everyone. Jesus’ point is that we are to love everyone. Love them, pray for them, and forgive them. Everyone.
We find it easier to think of our enemies as being distant monolithic entities, and tend to prefer stories with clearly defined characters who are obviously good or evil. Hollywood will be celebrating movies tonight at the Academy Awards. Looking at past winners it’s interesting to see how the enemies in many of those movies reflected the social and political climate of the time in which they were made. We’ve gone through seasons in which the enemies were whichever country we were currently fighting, or whichever social ill was plaguing us the most. During the cold war every bad guy in movies had a Russian accent. Some movies reinforce our perspective on who the current enemies are, and some movies challenge us to consider a different perspective.
Who is my enemy and do I really have to love, pray, bless, and do good to them? Maybe even harder, do I really have to turn the other cheek, give my shirt, and give whatever is asked? Yes. And sometimes no. Love, pray for, forgive – always. But some situations are not so simple….
In 1930, the movie that won the Academy Award for best picture was All Quiet on the Western Front, based on the novel by Erich Remarque, a German veteran of World War I. It’s about a young German man who enthusiastically signs up to fight in WWI with romantic and idealistic notions about fighting for his country and conquering the enemy, in this case, the French. His idealism is shattered when he experiences the hard and brutal reality of war. This is an anti-war movie. When German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw this movie, it affirmed Bonhoeffer’s growing conviction that as a Christian, the best way to follow Jesus was through pacifism. Bonhoeffer writes about loving our enemies in The Cost of Discipleship:
“Christian love draws no distinction between one enemy and another, except that the more bitter our enemy’s hatred, the greater his need of love. Be his enmity political or religious, he has nothing to expect from a follower of Jesus but unqualified love. In such love there is not inner discord between the private person and official capacity. In both we are disciples of Christ, or we are not Christians at all.” (From Cost of Discipleship, published in 1937.)
Bonhoeffer’s conviction is strong, so it’s not surprising that he wrestled greatly over all that was happening in Germany. Writer Eric Metaxas, in his book about Bonhoeffer, describes how things came to a head for Bonhoeffer in 1939, the year when all men of Bonhoeffer’s age had to register for the army. As a leader of the Confessing Church, “he was looking for a way out that would allow him to obey his conscience, but that would not force others to obey his conscience.” Bonhoeffer felt strongly that “Principles could carry one only so far. At some point every person must hear from God, must know what God was calling him to do.” Bonhoeffer agonized in prayer, wrestled with the scriptures, and went to great lengths to consult with other Christian leaders. The consensus among those advising him was that he should leave Germany. It was arranged that he would be invited to teach at Union Seminary in New York. On the journey by ship to America, Bonhoeffer continued to be troubled about the situation. His agitation grew once he got to New York until he finally decided to turn down the teaching position he had come to New York to take and return to Germany. Once that decision was made, he was at peace, even though he was going back to a nation about to be at war. One month after he returned to Germany, Hitler invaded Poland and WWII was begun.
We know what happened and we might have different opinions about whether Bonhoeffer made the right decision. We applaud his attempts to thwart Hitler, but we also know they led to Bonhoeffer’s death. His decision-making process is a great example of how to work out the dilemmas in our own lives. He sought God’s help through prayer and the scriptures, consulted with trusted friends, and listened to his gut feelings, which are often prompted by the Holy Spirit. He initially got himself out of harm’s way, but then after great deliberation decided to go back and face the risk.
In Bonhoeffer’s story, we see clear steps in how to live out Jesus’ challenging words. 4 steps, not necessarily in this order:
- Do not retaliate, but instead remove yourself from harm’s way
- Pray and consult scripture
- Consult trusted friends and advisors
Bonhoeffer’s initial response is to remove himself from the situation by going to America. It is only after great deliberation that he returns to be a part of the resistance. Another example of this is David. His enemy was King Saul who was jealous of him and trying to kill him. David was serving in Saul’s court but as David’s popularity grows, so does Saul’s jealousy. Saul toys with the idea of killing David and throws a spear at him in jest, but then turns serious and vows to kill David. David sees what’s happening and runs away.
One day while David and his men are on the run from Saul, Saul gets a tip about where to find David and brings his army to search that area. David and his men are hiding out in the back of a cave, when Saul comes in to relieve himself. David could easily have killed him right then, but he doesn’t. Instead he cuts off a piece of Saul’s robe without Saul knowing that he’s even there, and then follows Saul out. When Saul is a little way off, David holds up the piece of cloth and calls out to Saul, saying, “I could have killed you today, but I didn’t. I’m not a danger to you. Why don’t you stop trying to kill me?” Saul is repentant. “When someone finds an enemy, do they send the enemy away in peace? May the Lord repay you with good for what you have done for me today” (1 Sam. 24:19). David has done what Paul tells us to do in Romans: “Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable” (Romans 12:17). Saul saw that David was honorable and stopped pursuing him, but David still kept his distance from Saul.
Removing yourself from harm’s way protects yourself and also protects the other person from sinning. By removing yourself, you are removing their temptation to sin.
- Remove yourself from harm’s way
- Pray and consult scripture
- Consult trusted friends and advisors
Jesus says “Forgive and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37). We see remarkable forgiveness in our reading from Genesis 45. Joseph’s brothers had sold him into slavery and never heard from him again. They assumed he was dead. Now they find that he is the governor of Egypt and has warmly welcomed them and generously given them food for their families. Joseph explains:
“God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Genesis 45:7-8).
Joseph’s brothers behaved as enemies, but he forgives them and gives credit to God for using him to help his brothers and all those who would otherwise have died from starvation during the famine.
It’s not easy to forgive. Sometimes it’s really hard work. Joseph didn’t forgive his brothers instantly. He was 17 when they sold him into slavery (Gen 37:2) and almost forty by the time he welcomes his brothers to Egypt. He’s had a lot of time to work on forgiving them.
Jesus says from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In Acts, when Christian leader Stephen is being stoned to death, he says something similar. “Lord, do not hold their sin against them” (Acts 7:60). Stephen loves and prays for his enemies. A young pharisee named Saul is among the group of people stoning Stephen that day. Stephen’s prayer for them is answered when Saul meets Jesus on the road to Damascus and becomes Paul, the great missionary and writer of much of the New Testament.
God’s great love working through us can turn enemies into friends.
We won’t always do this well. Sometimes we’ll fail and need to ask forgiveness for ourselves. We’ve been talking a lot about getting to know our neighbors. One of the pastors who wrote the book The Neighboring Church tells about his struggles with loving a difficult neighbor.
When he first moved into the house, the neighbor had expressed concern about whether they would keep up their yard. The pastor dismissed the man’s comments as typical neighbor stuff, but as time went on he discovered that his neighbor was extremely obsessive about his lawn. He had removed all the trees so that nothing would obscure the grass. He would mow, and then touch it up with scissors. He would get upset whenever leaves from the pastor’s trees blew into his yard, or when water from their sprinklers would run over. One day the pastor’s daughter was playing in the sprinklers, which made some splash over into the neighbor’s yard. The neighbor got mad and started yelling at the girl. The pastor couldn’t restrain himself. He stomped over to the neighbor and yelled back. He says, “I pinned him against his truck, and we yelled at each other like an umpire and a manager at home plate.” After twenty minutes of yelling, the pastor gave up and stormed back into his house. He asked his wife, “What are we going to do with this guy?” His wife said something obnoxious: “Maybe we ought to pray for him.” The pastor’s first thought was, “All right, let’s pray for Seal Team Six to take him out.”
The pastor and his wife prayed for their neighbor and for themselves for about a week, before the pastor started hearing God say, “You need to apologize.” The pastor resisted for another week, and then one day when he was sneaking out of his house hoping NOT to run into his neighbor, he found his neighbor coming outside at the very same moment. They stared at each other for a bit, and then approached each other, and at the same moment, said, “I’m sorry.” They talked about the situation, and about the tension that had been building, and then the neighbor surprised the pastor by asking him if they could talk about God together. They had become enemies, but then through forgiveness became friends.
Lutheran pastor and speaker Nadia Bolz-Weber, in one of her sermons about Jesus command to love our enemies, tells about a radio talk show host who had become her enemy because he spent two entire shows ranting about how she was disobeying God by being a female pastor, and calling her a heretic for welcoming gays in her church. One day at a speaking engagement she was told that this guy was in the audience. She reacted in anger. “He shouldn’t be here. Don’t show me who he is.”
The next day a middle-aged guy with a goatee walked up to her and introduced himself as that radio host. She says, “I swallowed hard, extended my hand, said a quick ‘help me’ prayer and we proceeded to have a conversation about our need for God’s grace, forgiveness of sins and the Eucharist. A conversation in which he cried twice. At the end [she] said, ‘Chris, I have two things to say to you. One, you are a beautiful child of God and two, I think you and I were desperate enough to hear the gospel today that we might even be able to hear it from each other.’” Now Nadia and the talk show host talk on the phone every few months, and he doesn’t talk about her on his show any more. He’s even had trouble from his listeners for letting up on her.
Nadia is quick to point out that loving enemies is not something she could do on her own. She says this could only “flow from the heart of a forgiving God. The same God who in the book of Ezekiel says, “I your God will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (11:19).”
Who is our enemy? Who do we need to pray for? Who do we need to do good for? Who do we need to forgive? It makes a difference. What goes around comes around.
“Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6:37-38)
A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over. This is a picture of Jesus making sure we get every available bit of God’s abundant grace. What he’s describing is what we do when we’re filling up the flour jar. We pour until the jar is full, but then we shake it so the flour settles down in further, so that we can pour more in. My canisters aren’t big enough to hold the whole bag of flour, so I pour and shake and pour and shake, but I always end up with a few cups of flour still in the bag. There’s more than that canister can hold, and if I kept pouring it would be overflowing all over the place.
That’s what Jesus is saying about God’s generous love and grace for us. There’s more available than we can use. What holds it back is our holding back. The more we work on being forgiving and gracious, the more God is forgiving and gracious to us.
Jesus says in our memory verse for this week: Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Luke 6:31)
That verse sums up all that he is saying. Love your enemies, which means love everyone, and love them with the same measure of love and forgiveness that God has given to you.
 This would have been the year it was first introduced https://www.daisy.com/product/Red-Ryder-Model-1938/?itemnumber=991938-011
 This was also the year that Dachau, the first concentration camp, was opened. https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/dachau
 Metaxas, Eric. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (p. 323). Thomas Nelson, 2011. Kindle Edition.
 Mavis, Brian. The Neighboring Church: Getting Better at What Jesus Says Matters Most (p. 81). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
 From a sermon by Nadia Bolz-Weber called “Loving Your Enemies Even When You Don’t Mean To” found here: https://www.livinglutheran.org/2011/03/loving-enemy-even-you-dont-mean-part-2/