Sunday, August 31, 2014

a severe lack of enemy-love

Sermon 8-31-14
Romans 12:9-21
"Called and Sent"
Manassas Church of the Brethren

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.[e] 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly;[f] do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;[g] for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

There was so much goodness and grace that happened at National Youth Conference that it’s hard to pick out the best moment. It could have been all those swaying-together-in-worship songs;
or averting my eyes while all our youth climbed, untethered, to the very top of a tall climbing wall to get a fantastic group photo;

or the realization that the majority of the preachers for the week were WOMEN;
or the exuberant joy of thousands of people dancing to Mutual Kumquat;
or the classic youth group bonding activity of forcing someone (ahem, NICK) to consume some nasty dining hall concoction that you’ve created out of leftovers;
or the afternoon I took an hour off and headed with our friend Christine Engelen (who lives in Fort Collins, now) up into the hills, where the view to the East seems to stretch, flatly, all the way to the Mississippi;

or the dozens (maybe hundreds?) of embarrassing selfies we sent zinging all over the shuttle bus on the way back to the airport;
(the MOST embarrassing ones have been omitted for posterity's sake)

or the thrill of being invited to be one of the anointers during an evening worship service, looking person after person – especially our own youth - in the eyes and proclaiming that they are beloved, created and called;
or the evening when, walking into my dorm room for the night, I heard someone shout my name and turned to find four of our kids sitting at a table, bibles open, reading and sharing scripture together – and they invited me to join them;
But maybe the most enduring moment, the one where I felt God’s spirit on the move most powerfully and the one that I hope we who were there can keep alive, was during Jarrod McKenna’s sermon on the last evening.
Jarrod is an Australian leader, speaker, and community builder. He and his wife, Teresa, started the New Home Project – an outreach ministry that invites recently arrived refugees and immigrants to live with them until they can find their feet in their new home. And Jarrod, while not born or raised into any kind of Brethren faith, has been completely converted to the ways of our Anabaptist heritage and Pietist practice. He told the story of his friend, Kai, who left a life of street gang violence and joined the church there. Kai, having learned from Jarrod about our practices of footwashing and trine immersion baptism, decided that he wanted to stop fighting and killing his enemies, and start washing their feet. He decided he wanted to be baptized – dunked three times – and begin living the enemy-loving way of Jesus.
Jarrod told this story and said, “and that inspiration – that came from YOU LOT.” The way Jarrod describes our unique combination of Anabaptist practice and pietist spirituality is a strong emphasis on lived obedience to the commands of Jesus WITH an equally strong sense of the real presence of God always here amongst us.
When Jarrod ended his sermon, he issued a challenge. He challenged anyone who was feeling stirred to live this particular call to the ways of Jesus – a sense of real presence, a desire to obey Christ’s commands, the impulse to practice enemy-love – to stand up and join him on the arena floor. Thousands of people stood and joined him. The sense of God’s presence, and the desire of these NYCers to follow Jesus, was palpable.

Photo: Nevin Dulabaum, for the CoB

I think Jarrod was taken aback at how many people stood and came forward. He wasn’t anticipating the response, but he, too, was moved by what was happening. And his next words were perfect. “One of the beautiful things about your tradition is that you insist that discipleship is never a solo journey, but that it takes a community. If you are serious about this, you will need the people next to you…I want to thank those who are taking this seriously enough that stayed in their seats. You might actually understand what we’re actually asking of you more than some of the people that came forward. And God’s not done with any of us. So thank you for your courage.”  He prayed for us. We prayed for each other. And this moment of commitment – to practice obedience in the light of God’s presence, to live Christ’s way of enemy-love – this was, by far, my favorite moment from NYC. It’s how all that Dunker Punk stuff you may have been hearing about started.


The scripture passage from today – Romans 12 – has a lot to say about loving enemies. Paul is writing, like we talked about last week, to the Christians in Rome. He’s giving them instruction about how to follow Christ in the center of the Empire. So the second half of this chapter is something of a list of Things Good Christians Do.
First, he says, you’ve got to learn how to treat one another in the church. Love one another. Outdo one another in showing honor. Be zealous! Be ardent! Serve God and one another. Care for those among you who are in need. Offer hospitality to strangers.
And then, Paul says, here’s how to live among people who are not YOUR people. Those people who persecute you for your faith: bless them. If the people around you are rejoicing, rejoice with them! If they are weeping, weep with them. Don’t pretend to be extra special. Do not repay evil for evil. Live peaceably with all. If your enemy is hungry: feed them. If your enemy is thirsty: give them something to drink. Don’t get sucked into the empire’s culture of polarization, political bickering, winning by force. Don’t stoop down to that level – overcome evil with GOOD.

This is HARD. Loving enemies is HARD. When I read this passage and think about people I know who have successfully practiced enemy-love, I appreciate Jarrod McKenna’s reminder that those who didn’t stand that night really might have been the ones who understood how hard the challenge is.
One person who seriously committed his life to enemy-love was Martin Luther King, Jr. If you’re looking for some ideas about how to follow Christ in the center of the Empire, his sermons rank right up there with Paul’s letter to the Romans. In one of those sermons, preached in Montgomery, Alabama in 1957, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, King sums up the enemy-love of Christ this way:
So this morning, as I look into your eyes, and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you, "I love you. I would rather die than hate you." And I’m foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed. And then we will be in God’s kingdom. We will be able to matriculate into the university of eternal life because we had the power to love our enemies, to bless those persons that cursed us, to even decide to be good to those persons who hated us, and we even prayed for those persons who despitefully used us.
One of my favorite writers is Sarah Vowell. She wrote a newspaper article a few years ago about celebrating Martin Luther King Day, explaining how King’s great civil vision was drawn explicitly from the ways of Jesus. She quotes that sermon and then says:
Go ahead and re-read that. That is hands down the most beautiful, strange, impossible, but most of all radical thing a human being can say. And it comes from reading the most beautiful, strange, impossible, but most of all radical civics lesson ever taught, when Jesus of Nazareth went to a hill in Galilee and told his disciples, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.”
Paul, in our text for this morning, is reminding the Roman Christians of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Your job, he tells those Christians in Rome, is to love your enemies. And Sarah Vowell is RIGHT: This IS the most beautiful, strange, impossible and radical thing a human being can say.
I think we all know something of how hard it can be to love our enemies. In fact, I know this congregation to be a place where we try – really hard – to be a place where the usual dividing lines of our culture, the lines of politics and ideologies that function so often as enemy-creators, don’t hold so much power. Sometimes, that’s because we avoid talking about serious things we disagree about. But most of the time, it’s because we take seriously Jesus’ commands and Paul’s instructions to love one another here in this place. I’ve heard multiple people say, in just the last week, how grateful they are for this church, a congregation that functions like a family especially for those whose families are far away. I also heard from someone this week that the way they’d describe this congregation in one word would be: GRACIOUS. That’s a high compliment, y’all.
This last year and a half, we’ve spent a lot of time working on our life together in this place. Some of that work has been about responsibilities: who plans worship? Who unlocks the building? Who’s responsible for keeping a watch on the finances? And some of that work has been about relationships: What do we do when we disagree? What does it mean to be a deacon? How do we care for each other when someone is sick, or sad, or lost?
This has been good, important work. I expect it will continue. Paul reminds the Roman Christians to rejoice in hope, patient in suffering, persevering in prayer. Surely we’ll need that advice as we move together into this new way of being a congregation together when Chris begins as our senior pastor this week.
But Paul didn’t write to the Romans just to give them advice on how to live together, and Jesus didn’t preach the Sermon on the Mount solely as a primer in community living. Paul is talking to Christians in Rome – Christians faced with living the way of Christ in the midst of an empire and a culture bent in almost opposite directions. This command to love our enemies doesn’t stop when we leave this sanctuary. We are called – individually, yes, but also as a body, as a community, as a congregation – to pray for those who persecute us, to feed our hungry enemies, to overcome evil with good.
I am not sure what that looks like for us, here, in this place, but here are some things I’ve noticed about this place recently:
When we went to House of Mercy during VBS with the Jr. Highs, we learned that 13,000 children in Prince William County aren’t sure where their next meal is coming from.
Just a few weeks ago, Jan Hawkins and the people at SERVE shared school supplies with 2,000 families who couldn’t afford notebooks and pencils.
This summer, at the county’s Board of Supervisors meetings, our leaders and our neighbors have been engaged in heated discussions about the presence and support of unaccompanied, undocumented immigrant kids from Latin America being housed just down the road at Youth for Tomorrow.
Two weeks ago, a man was killed – 2 miles from here – by gang-related violence. This was Manassas’ first homicide in 2014 – a man killed at the hands of his enemies.
I am convinced that the conditions that allow for each of these things to happen here, in our town and in our county, are created by a severe lack of enemy-love, a belief that we have permission to stop loving when we reach some invisible boundary – of family or race or nationality or socio-economic strata or comfort. Those boundaries don’t exist. Our call is to love over and through every boundary, to love even those who we think of as our enemies.
And I’m also convinced that this congregation, in particular, has both the gift and the calling to share what we know and what we’ve received about loving our enemies.
It’s here, in scripture – in Paul’s letters and in Jesus’ teaching, in the prophets and in he gospel.
It’s here, in the example of Jesus, refusing to condemn anyone, by welcoming sinners and tax collectors and centurions and prostitutes and immigrants and minorities and criminals into his circle.
It’s here, in our own Brethren tradition that has formed us into a gracious people, people who serve, people who respond when need arises, people who invite others in, people who KNOW that following Jesus is beautiful and strange and impossible and peculiar.
And it’s here, in this place. We have been called into this beautiful, strange life with Jesus. And we are sent out into the world to share that life in all its beauty and in all its strangeness.
I am excited about what’s going to happen here in these coming months. I’m excited that Chris is starting as our pastor, and I’m excited that fall is here and we get to hang out together regularly again in Sunday school and at CAN on Wednesdays (Starting September 10!).  And I am also excited because I feel God moving among us, forming us into Christ’s people, into Christ’s church. I still can’t see the whole of what that means for us, here in this place. But I keep getting glimpses. Are you excited? Can you see the possibilities? Do you feel God moving among us, too?

May it be so. Amen.

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